Friday, January 11, 2013

Review: A Mercy, by Toni Morrison (2008)

In A Mercy, Toni Morrison tells a story about early America when slaves weren't yet the only source of free labor. In this setting, there is a wildness about life, and man attempts to tame this wildness with civilization and religion. Morrison depicts this world with realism and strong attention to detail. That Morrison chose to set her story in 1690 is an interesting decision because at that time slavery was only beginning to be defined by race. Here a free black man could have higher status than an indentured white man, though lowest of all were the women, particularly non-white women. According to the book jacket, this story is about how one act of mercy has unintended consequences, but I believe that's a misstatement of Morrison's point. I believe the point is that people of an inferior station in life are doomed by society to live a troubled life no matter what chance an act of mercy might grant them for a better one.

Central to the characters and their connections with one another is Jacob Vaark, a white farmer in Maryland who seeks help and greater wealth. In the process he gathers the women and labor who compose this story. He marries Rebekka, a young white woman whose father would marry her off to the first man to offer. Jacob and Rebekka are grateful for one another, as Jacob is kind and Rebekka is obedient yet independent. They build themselves a small home in a remote area, but life is difficult and Rebekka loses every child she births. Jacob eventually brings home help in the form of Lina, a Native-American woman who has witnessed her tribe decimated by smallpox. She is distrustful of others, but gradually befriends Rebekka. There is also Sorrow, a scatter-brained woman who seems simple, though her troubles are far more complex than we realize once we get to know them. Finally, there is the main character, Florens, a young girl whose mother gives her to Jacob as a form of mercy, to keep the girl from the lustful cravings of her master. Florens is just a child and she is quickly the object of affection from both Lina and Rebekka.

There are other men as well who are key to the story. Willard and Scully are indentured servants who occasionally help the Vaarks out. Scully, the youngest of the two, is hopeful his servitude will be as brief as possible, and he does his best to avoid the mistakes of his friend, Willard, whose fugitive and thieving ways have been cause to increase the length of his servitude. These two are somewhat jealous by the free black man, a blacksmith hired by Jacob to build a gate for the new house he wants, but they are all good friends anyway because of the smith's charming ways. Lina is the most troubled by this blacksmith's appearance once she realizes Florens has grown smitten with him. For Lina, men are always trouble. The blacksmith is a curious character in many ways, and the fact he is a free black man is a shock to the servants. They find it strange the way he and Jacob talk with one another as though equals. I also find it curious that the blacksmith is among the only characters who doesn't have a name. It makes him enigmatic, but it also strips away the power his freedom grants him.

The plot is simple, but the humanity is much more complex. Conflict revolves around a deadly disease, smallpox, that knows no bounds between the highly and the lowly among people. The conflict is also internal, within each character, and as the story unfolds the reader gets to know each character, their desires and troubles, in a lot of detail, though in the process I think Morrison's storytelling suffers somewhat. She's certainly a gifted writer, as she's shown in her other works like Beloved and The Bluest Eye, but here her writing sometimes comes off as stilted at times. Too much is learned through expository background information, which slows the story down. Every time Morrison introduces a new perspective, she also provides their life story, and that's quite a bit of characters. I've also read people criticize her character development, though I'm not sure I agree. Morrison's goal, anyway, is not the type of character development people may be used to in YA fiction, but to show the carnal human desires and fears that shape their decisions.

I believe at the heart of these desires is one for security. Rebekka realizes as a woman in her standing she has a choice between marriage, servitude, and prostitution, and neither option is terribly appealing. She chooses marriage because at least there you have the chance at a good husband and some semblance of social standing. The other servant women, Lina, Sorrow, and Florens, also feel the comfort Jacob's security brings. Jacob is a rare man who does not mistreat the women or servants in his life. There is no threat of abuse, physically or emotionally. With Jacob, on his property, under his wealth, the women feel safe. However, smallpox tears this security apart. Even for Rebekka, society demands that her widowhood doesn't last forever, and the servants all realize that marriage means a new man and another roll of the dice.

Love is also important, though there is a safe love and a dangerous love. The love story is between Florens and the blacksmith, with Lina constantly warning Florens against the man. Put this story in the hands of Stephenie Meier, and we'd have another teen romance story where a boy and a girl are so madly in love they destroy themselves. Morrison, however, does not see this type of relationship as a positive. The positive role models for love are Rebekka and Jacob, who have created a powerful family environment. The love Florens has for the blacksmith is dangerous because it goes forward heedlessly in a time and environment where caution is the best chance for survival.

Something that strongly lent a strong sense of security in these harsh times was religion. Jacob and Rebecca have no interest in religion, because the community it builds is sometimes hateful and frightening, but religion affects everyone's lives nonetheless. The church had a lot of power, but it also abused that power by alienating those who chose not to believe, or didn't belong, and it defined who was or was not considered worthy under God's eyes. A strong feeling that God exists also spawned a superstitious fear of evil beings. In one scene a young girl is thought to be a demon because she has a lazy eye, and her mother cuts her legs open to bleed her because demons don't bleed. Morrison makes an interesting observation about God and the devout through her character, Sorrow. After enduring a long illness, Rebekka gets down on her knees and prays to God. She gives thanks to God rather than the servants who devoted their time and effort to keep her alive, and to Sorrow it's as though the devotion shown by her servants meant nothing to her. This serves to raise questions about how God views those who devote themselves to Him.

As a piece of historical fiction that hones its observations on a single family in 1690s Maryland, this is a very fascinating read. Morrison obviously knows her stuff, and she brings the era to life in great detail. Thematically there's a lot going for the novel, and I'm sure a second reading would help me find more that I missed during the first read. This is a book I would recommend, though it's not Morrison at her best. She's a challenging author, and her words provide challenges here, but too often the story delves into expository background her characters. Morrison is interested in the meek and the oppressed, but more than that she is interested in humanity, because in the end everyone is slave to folly and mortality, anyway.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Guest Post: Goodnight, Brian by Steven Manchester (New Release)

Steven Manchester has just released a brand new book called Goodnight, Brian. If you like what you see here, make sure to pick up a copy. 

Brief Synopsis:
Fate was working against little Brian Mauretti. The food that was meant to nourish him was poisoning him instead, and the doctors said the damage was devastating and absolute. Fate had written off Brian. But fate didn’t count on a woman as determined as Brian’s grandmother, Angela DiMartino – who everyone knew as Mama. Loving her grandson with everything she had, Mama endeavored to battle fate. Fate had no idea what it was in for.

An emotional tale about the strength of family bonds, unconditional love, and the perseverance to do our best with the challenging gifts we receive, Goodnight, Brian is an uplifting tribute to what happens when giving up is not an option.


Author Bio:  Steven Manchester is the published author of the #1 best seller, Twelve Months, as well as A Christmas Wish (the holiday prequel to Goodnight, Brian). He is also the Pressed Pennies, The Unexpected Storm: The Gulf War Legacy and Jacob Evans, as well as several books under the pseudonym, Steven Herberts. His work has appeared on NBC's Today Show, CBS's The Early Show, CNN’s American Morning and BET’s Nightly News. Recently, three of his short stories were selected "101 Best" for Chicken Soup for the Soul series.

Paperback & Kindle:


Goodnight, Brian
(brief excerpt)

Enough time had passed for the shock of Brian’s condition to wear off. Joan had stumbled beyond the grieving process and had given up negotiating with God. She was now at a place called rage. Mama sat with her daughter at the kitchen table, trying to help her make sense of it all. “Maybe Brian’s a test from God?” Mama suggested.
“Why would God test a little baby who’s never done a thing wrong? Why would He test an innocent child?” Joan snapped back.
Mama shook her head. “I didn’t say God was testing Brian,” she said evenly. There was a thoughtful pause. “Maybe He’s testing everyone around Brian?”
“I don’t want to hear that!” Joan roared. “My son will never be able to enjoy the life of other people who don’t…”
Mama slapped her hand on the Formica table, stopping Joan in mid-sentence and turning her face into that of a seven-year-old girl’s. “Not another negative word, do you hear me?” she yelled back, quickly grabbing her daughter’s hands and holding them tightly. “Positive, Joan—everything must be positive! Negative calls for negative and positive brings forth positive. Brian’s already facing some unfair challenges. We have to be positive, Joan. We just have to be!”
Joan wiped her eyes. “But what if the doctor’s right, Ma?” she muttered in a tortured voice. “What if…”
Without letting Joan’s hands go, Mama took a deep breath and started in on her own tirade. “The doctors don’t know what the hell they’re talking about! I had a grandmother who lived her whole life as a brittle diabetic, but she ate anything she wanted. She died three days before her eighty-fifth birthday. Your grandfather supposedly had cirrhosis of the liver, but lived with his bottle for forty more years until old age took him. They don’t know beans! Besides, we need to have faith in a higher source.” She pulled her crucifix away from her neck and kissed it. “You have to believe, Joan. Before any of the healing can take place, you have to believe that it will.” She nodded and lowered her tone. “Only God knows how…and that’s enough.”
Joan placed her face in her hands and began to cry. She was now completely removed from her rage and safely returned to the stage of grief. “I’m…just…so… scared,” she stuttered, sobbing.
Mama stroked her hair. “Don’t you worry, love. They say that children are raised by a village.” She nodded her gray, curly head. “I think it’s about time we had a village meeting.”

Monday, January 7, 2013

Review: Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke (2003)

Cornelia Funke's massive fantasy story has very little charm and substance after you get passed the first 100 pages or so. I was enthralled by the beginning one-fifth of the story, about a young girl who grows up in a paradise of books. Funke does such a great job of creating a sense of mystery and awe early on that it's a big disappointment how the rest of the story turns out. Once the reader learns what the story is really about, it grows very dull. The colorful characters lose their glimmer, and much of the story is populated by flavorless, witless villains who merely brandish knives and cold gazes. Funke follows the trend of recent YA fantasy that prefers a dark story to a light-hearted one. It took the Harry Potter series several books to finally cave in to its dark urges, but Inkheart switches over in the matter of 100 pages, and from that point on I felt like I was trudging along rather than enjoying myself.

The main character is a young girl named Meggie. She lives with her father, Mo, who fixes up book covers and keeps old books from falling apart. He is a lover of stories, and this trait has been passed down to his daughter. Very little is known about her mother except that she went away mysteriously when Meggie was only very young. Meggie and her father appear to be living a fine little life until the arrival of a mysterious figure named Dustfinger, who calls Meggie's father by the name of Silvertongue. It seems that Mo has been hiding some secrets from her, and Meggie spies on her father to try to learn what they are. These secrets revolve around a book and a special power of Mo's, which is the basis for the novel's fantasy elements.

An evil being named Capricorn has been seeking Mo for a very long time, and now Dustfinger is trying to convince Mo to go and see him. It's not very clear what side Dustfinger is on. He takes a liking to Meggie, and shows her tricks he can do with fire and introduces her to his horned marten, Gwin. However, he also has a sneaky, suspicious look about him. His motives are selfish above all else. Mo decides he and Meggie need to run away and hide, and they set out for her great aunt Elinor's house. Dustfinger joins them, against Mo's better judgment. Elinor is the most enjoyable character, at least at the start. She dislikes children, and this creates for some colorful, humorous dialogue at the start. She also loves books, perhaps even more than Mo. She collects them and has a gigantic collection in her house. Eventually the villains make their entrance, and this is where things begin to go downhill.

One of the problems is that nobody seems to take the danger in the novel very seriously, and as a result it's difficult for the reader to take it seriously either. When Mo is kidnapped forcefully by Capricorn's men, it never occurs to even the elderly Elinor to call the police. Instead, everybody packs up and heads out to find him, convinced a simple discussion will win him back. All of the characters in the novel have a tendency to behave like naive children. It's as though they don't realize there are bad things in the world. They talk when they should probably keep their mouth shut, but in truth the villains hardly do anything villainous at all except make threats, hold knives to throats, and throw people into prisons. The reader is supposed to take the narrator at her word when she says that Capricorn is a very evil dude. Funke forgets that it's more powerful to show than to tell.

The novel is very long and it feels even longer because it is repetitive and predictable. The problem with the story is that it has nowhere to go, and Funke merely prolongs the inevitable by showing us many different perspectives and introducing several new characters. In the process, Meggie takes a backseat to everyone else; she is merely pulled along and doesn't truly make a decision of her own. Nothing about the story is very convincing, and the ending comes together too nicely. The reader doesn't really have any reason to be afraid, nor does the reader have any reason to invest anything emotionally into the story. It's flat, dull, and lifeless. Such a shame, too, because it opened up with such promise.