Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy” makes the New York Times Book Review’s Top 10

I could get irked that 80 percent of the books designated “The 10 Best Books of 2008” by the editors of The New York Times Book Review were written by men, but the fact that Toni Morrison’s new novel, A Mercy, is among the celebrated books enables me to simply enjoy that Morrison gets the recognition she so justly deserves.

Well, I’m actually assuming she deserves recognition for A Mercy, as I have not actually read it yet. (You can, however, read glowing reviews of it here and here.) I have read other Morrison novels, so I’m not a total fraud. And she’s won numerous writing awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. (Given that American writers do not win the Nobel Prize for Literature anymore — Morrison was the last to win it, in fact — this is especially impressive!) Plus, I am going to read her new book one of these days.

My point, though, is that this is further evidence that Morrison is widely regarded as the real deal. I don’t believe anyone can get away anymore with dismissing her achievements as a “PC” thing. I recall in college when various learned types were wringing their hands at the prospect of including Morrison and other notable modern writers in the Western Canon. (Somehow to do so would be an attack on Shakespeare.) While this type of condescension certainly still exists, I suspect it’s hard to dispute that Morrison is one of the best writers of the late 20th and early 21st century.

Of course, as happy as I am to acknowledge A Mercy’s inclusion, I’m not going to leave The Times’ list without a minor rant. The great travesty is that The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell is not on the list.

And this travesty is greater than it initially appears. Not only was The Wordy Shipmates not included among the 10 best, it was not even included among the The Times’ “100 Notable Books of 2008!”

I certainly realize that Vowell’s blend of pop culture and history is not everyone’s cup of tea. And I enjoy more straightforward history tomes as much as the next person. (Actually, I probably enjoy them more than the next person, because I actually read history for fun sometimes.) But Vowell’s study of John Winthrop, Anne Hutchinson and the other Boston Colony Puritans is so accessible and interesting and funny, as well as being clearly well-researched, that it deserves serious recognition.

Now I cannot say for certain that it was one of the 10 or 100 best books of the year because I didn’t actually read any other new books this year. (I stupidly buy books rather than go to the library, so I usually wait until they’re released in paperback.) However, The Wordy Shipmates was so engaging that I read it on the beach on my honeymoon.

And then a couple of weeks later, I was haunted by the images of the Pequot War as detailed in The Wordy Shipmates when I visited Mohegan Park in Connecticut. And isn’t that what good history is supposed to do? To stay with you and inform how you see the world?

Has anyone read A Mercy or The Wordy Shipmates? Thoughts?