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Moments of Grace
The Great Toni Morrison Returns with a Miraculous Tale of Sorrow and Beauty
A Mercy by Toni Morrison

A Mercy

By Toni Morrison
176 pages; Knopf
Watch:
An interview with the author Watch
Read: Start Chapter 1

A young girl scratching her story into the floorboards of an unused room in a house that belongs to a dead man. A she-eagle, who, upon hearing the evil thoughts of man, falls out of her nest and falls forever, leaving her eaglets to find their way into the world alone. A young wife, who, after learning the "intricacy of loneliness" associated with marriage, comes down with smallpox and apologizes to her face in the mirror over and over again. These are a few of the memorable characters that populate Toni Morrison's lyrical ninth novel, A Mercy (Knopf). It is 1682 in Maryland. The slave and rum trade runs through Barbados, Native Americans are dying in droves from European diseases, and most women live "of and for men," their three choices: servant, prostitute, wife. But this place and time is also full of miracles and mercies—a surprising and enduring friendship, a mother's intuitive sacrifice, a company man's stumbling but tenacious goodwill. American history, the natural world, and human desire collide in a series of musical voices, distinct from one another—unmistakably Morrisonian in their beauty and power—that together tell this moving and morally complicated tale. "Sudden a sheet of sparrows fall from the sky and settle in the trees. So many the trees seem to sprout birds, not leaves at all. Lina points. We never shape the world she says. The world shapes us. Sudden and silent the sparrows are gone."

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    Read an Excerpt from A Mercy
    A Mercy by Toni Morrison

    A Mercy

    By Toni Morrison
    176 pages; Knopf
    Watch:
    An interview with the authorWatch
    Read: Our review by Pam Houston

    Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark--weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more--but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth. I explain. You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog's profile plays in the steam of a kettle. Or when a corn-husk doll sitting on a shelf is soon splaying in the corner of a room and the wicked of how it got there is plain. Stranger things happen all the time everywhere. You know. I know you know. One question is who is responsible? Another is can you read? If a pea hen refuses to brood I read it quickly and, sure enough, that night I see a minha mãe standing hand in hand with her little boy, my shoes jamming the pocket of her apron. Other signs need more time to understand. Often there are too many signs, or a bright omen clouds up too fast. I sort them and try to recall, yet I know I am missing much, like not reading the garden snake crawling up to the door saddle to die. Let me start with what I know for certain.

    The beginning begins with the shoes. When a child I am never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody's shoes, even on the hottest days. My mother, a minha mãe, is frowning, is angry at what she says are my prettify ways. Only bad women wear high heels. I am dangerous, she says, and wild but she relents and lets me wear the throwaway shoes from Senhora's house, pointy-toe, one raised heel broke, the other worn and a buckle on top. As a result, Lina says, my feet are useless, will always be too tender for life and never have the strong soles, tougher than leather, that life requires. Lina is correct. Florens, she says, it's 1690. Who else these days has the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady? So when I set out to find you, she and Mistress give me Sir's boots that fit a man not a girl. They stuff them with hay and oily corn husks and tell me to hide the letter inside my stocking--no matter the itch of the sealing wax. I am lettered but I do not read what Mistress writes and Lina and Sorrow cannot. But I know what it means to say to any who stop me.

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      Code Name: Freedom
      James McBride's fascinating novel about an intricate, secret system that led runaway slaves north.
      Song Yet Sung
      Song Yet Sung
      By James McBride
      368 pages. Riverhead.


      “Chance is an instrument of God,” the No Name woman tells Liz Spocott, the beautiful, twice-escaped slave at the center of James McBride's second novel, Song Yet Sung (Riverhead). “And the coach wrench turns the wagon wheel.... Scratch a line in the dirt to make a friend.... Use double wedding rings when you marry. Tie the wedding knot five times. And remember, it's not the song, but the singer of it. You got to sing the second part twice.” Liz doesn't at first understand the meaning of the Code given to her by the No Name woman just before she dies, but she feels the import of the words.

      The year is 1850, and on Maryland's Eastern Shore the woods, swamps, and waterways are alive with the movements of runaway slaves—who can sense the freedom that awaits them only 80 miles north across the Pennsylvania state line—and the slave catchers hired to return them to their owners. These Chesapeake backwaters are also home to the watermen: poor, tough, fiercely independent blacks and whites, generations of oystermen who sometimes ferry runaways to safety; and to Woolman, an escaped slave who has avoided capture for years by learning to run like an animal and stand still as a tree; and to the volatile Patty Cannon, who together with her gang of men kidnap runaway slaves, beat them senseless (if not to death), and sell them back into the slave trade heading south.

      The Code, intricate and ingenious, allows all those working for the underground railroad (which, on the Eastern Shore, moves in dugout canoes and atop swamp-savvy horses) to communicate through the pattern of a quilt hung on a clothesline, the rhythm of a blacksmith's hammer, or the number of knots tied in a bit of string. But the Code is also an instrument of deep faith, affirming the existence of God and the possibility of freedom—reasons to live in unlivable times—and McBride makes us see why men died rather than reveal it. Gripping, affecting, and beautifully paced, Song Yet Sung illuminates, in the most dramatic fashion, a deeply troubling, vastly complicated moment in American history, and asks us to bear witness to both the oppressed and the oppressor in ourselves.

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        The All-Night Read
        Away
        How is it that some people can lose everything but relentlessly keep moving forward? Away (Random House), by frequent O contributor Amy Bloom, tells of Lillian Leyb, an immigrant who lands at Ellis Island in 1924 with only her ambition and bittersweet memories. Though she’s snagged a job as seamstress for a New York Yiddish theater company—and as mistress to both its elderly owner and his closeted son—Lillian strikes out toward the Yukon to find her daughter, who might have survived her family’s massacre in Russia. A novel laced with heartache, but also a strong thread of hope.

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          Author Carol Ross
          Gayle King and Carol Ross
          Poignant, touching, beautiful, funny…these are the words that describe the photographs in Pop: A Celebration of Black Fatherhood by Carol Ross. For the book, Carol photographed African-American fathers interacting with their children and asked them to share their thoughts on fatherhood. Gayle talks to Carol about the inspiration behind Pop and her creative process.

          Carol says she was inspired to write the book by her own father and husband, who she says are two of the best fathers she's ever known. In addition, Carol says that over the years she has accumulated many images of fathers with their children—and she decided to create an entire book dedicated to all the great dads out there.

          At the same time, she says she saw writing the book as an opportunity to portray African-American fathers, who she says often receive bad publicity, in a positive light. "There are a lot of black men waking up every day, making it happen for their kids, and it's not acknowledged," she says.

          For the book, Carol invited a mix of celebrity dads and not-so-famous fathers to participate. "I didn't want anyone to overshadow the fathers—everyone [was represented] equally—and they're all normal dads, whether they're celebrities or not," she says. Her friend, actor Samuel L. Jackson, wrote the book's forward.

          Carol says she shot all the photographs in black-and-white to coincide with her artistic vision. "Black-and-white is honest, it's raw, it's edgy, it is what it is," she says. "I wanted a real photograph, so that when another father opened this up, he felt like, 'Yeah, that's me!'" Carol says the photo shoots aimed to be revealing and authentic, too. "I wanted to be a fly on the wall and capture moments together," she says.

          Carol also asked each of the fathers pictured in the book to share some thoughts about fatherhood, which she included next to their photograph. She says their comments made the book complete. "Their words really brought it home," Carol says. "I just didn't imagine how powerful the whole book would be once the words came into place."

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