This novel is about two women who were once close but now hate one another but nevertheless share a large house due to a conflict over inheritance of the property. Heed and Christine both had a relationship with Bill Cosey, the owner of a successful beach resort for Black vacationers from the 1930s to the 1980s. The nonlinear narrative skips back and forth between past and present to explore Cosey’s relationship with Heed and Christine and several other women, each of whom seem to be poisoned by his moral failings.
The novel explores several issues including family, resentment, reconciliation, and love. Over 60 years, the Civil Rights Movement has a negative effect on a resort that enjoyed its greatest success under Jim Crow. This novel also has one of the most surprising twists that was still unsettling even though this is the second time I’ve read the book and knew it was coming. Morrison’s writing and plotting is excellent and I love that this novel ends with redemption.
Author: Elfriede Jelinek Title: The Piano Teacher Translator: Joachim Neugroschel Publication Info: Grove Atlantic, 2009 [originally published in 1983] Summary/Review:
Erika Kohut is a woman in her mid-thirties who teaches piano at the prestigious Vienna Conservatory. She lives with her controlling mother in a very taught and unhealthy relationship. Erika rebels in various including buying clothing she never wears, self-harm, and deliberately injuring strangers. Over the course of the novel she also explores her repressed sexuality by going to pornographic movies, peep shows, and practicing voyeurism.
Walter Klemmer, a student over a decade younger than Erika, begins to show her attention. Their desire grows and when they finally acknowledge it, Erika requests a sadomasochistic relationship. Walter, who is an arrogant prick, really justs wants to have sex with an older woman and move on. Things go horribly, horribly wrong.
I saw this book described as “erotic” but there’s absolutely nothing sexy about it. In fact, it is quite repulsive. Jelinek seems to revel in using the most unpleasant description possible for the human condition and the human body. It just gets worse and worse and I really struggled to finish this book. I’ve also seen the book described as “satire,” but it reads to me as nothing more than caustic misanthropy.
Author: Jamaica Kincaid Title: Annie John Publication Info: New York : Farrar, Straus, Giroux, c1985. Summary/Review:
Annie John is a novel about a young girl growing to become a young woman. The story includes the deterioration of her relationship with her mother, her love for another girl named Gwen, and Annie John’s depression. Colonization weighs over the story in the conflict between traditional ways and English culture. I don’t know if this novel is autobiographical, but Kincaid writes with a sense of lived experience while also being timeless.
Author: The Old Drift Title: Namwali Serpell Narrator: Adjoa Andoh, Richard E. Grant, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith Publication Info: Random House Audio (2019) Summary/Review:
This is an epic novel that attempts to depict the history of Zambia through the fictional stories of several generations of a few interrelated families. The characters are a mix of Black African people native to the region that would become Zambia as well as European colonizers and expatriates. The novel begins with explorer David Livingstone seeing Victoria Falls for the first time. This is ironic since later in the novel a character says that when telling stories to white people you need to always start with a white person “discovering” something. The novel ends in a near future time when biotechnology has become commonplace.
The stories in this novel draw on the traditions of magical realism. For example a woman’s hair grows so fast so as to constantly cover her entire body. Her daughters, on the other hand, have fast growing hair on their heads that they are able to profit from by selling for wigs. Some parts of the story seem ludicrous but are drawn from actual Zambian history, such as the plan for a Zambian space program in the 1960s to send a woman to Mars with several cats. This may or may not have been a joke in real life.
The novel is sprawling and it includes a large cast of characters and I found it hard to remember who is who. The novel is also written in a style more akin to history than a literary narrative which made it hard for me to hold my attention. I would chalk this up as a reader issue than a flaw of the book, though.
Overall, this is a weird and wonderful work of fiction. Serpell is a young contemporary author and it will be interesting to see what she produces next.
Set in the 1960s, with a framing story in the present day, The Nickel Boys tells the story of the boys held at the Nickel Academy reform school in Florida. The protagonist of the story is Elwood Curtis, a studious teenager who begins taking courses at a local college. He is unjustly arrested and prosecuted when he accepts a ride from an acquaintance in what turns out to be a stolen car.
Elwood, an optimistic child inspired by the Civil Rights Movement finds himself among hardened and more cynical inmates including a boy name Turner whom he befriends. Much of the novel details the harsh conditions of the “school” where boys are sexually abused, face severe corporal punishment, and some simply disappear. The segregated facility is also much harsher in its treatment of Black students. As much as Elwood tries to keep his head down and make it through his sentence, his sense of justice brings him into conflict with the authorities.
In the present-day narrative, the graves of boys murdered at the Nickel Academy are uncovered a few years after the institution is closed. Men who survived incarceration at Nickel come forward with stories of their abuse. There’s a big twist in the story that I didn’t see coming and makes me want to reread the book because I’m sure it would change the meaning of a lot of the narrative.
The Nickel Academy is based on a real reform school in Florida, and Whitehead incorporates events described by survivors into his story. The narrative is a grim tale and a microcosm of America’s sins of racial discrimination and the carceral state.
Their Eyes Were Watching God remains one of my favorite books of all time. I read it several times in the 1990s but hadn’t revisited it since. To listen to the audiobook narrated by Ruby Dee is a treat.
The novel depicts the journey of self-actualization of Janie Crawford, a Black woman in early 20th-century Florida. It begins with Janie as young teenager, experiencing an awakening that is both sexual as well as tied to the natural world and the possibilities of youth. Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, who raised her in absence of her mother, is anxious that Janie will follow her mother’s path as unwed mother and marries Janie off to older farmer named Logan Killicks.
It is a loveless marriage and Killicks mainly wants Janie as labor for his farm. Janie runs off with the charismatic Joe Starks, an ambitious man planning to move to the all-Black town of Eatonville, where he sets himself up as mayor and prominent businessman upon arrival. But Starks is very controlling and abusive of Janie, restricting even her social life. After Starks’ death, Janie meets the younger man Tea Cake, and at last finds love. While Janie experiences joy and fulfillment sharing Tea Cake’s life as a migrant farmer, he also gives off some red flags of possessiveness and irresponsibility.
The novel is framed by Janie telling her life story to a friend, and it is through the experiences of these four relationships – Nanny, Killicks, Starks, and Tea Cake – that she is able to discover herself and control her own destiny. Hurston’s novel draws on African-American folklore and the importance of being tied to nature in human life. Published a generation before the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements it was a book ahead of its time. But it has rightly found its spot in the literary canon.
This novel is set in an alternate universe where the dead rose from the Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War ended because of the zombie apocalypse. Twenty years later, the surviving society has adapted by training Black and indigenous people to become “attendants” who protect the white elites from attacks by the “shamblers.” Among these are this books narrator, Jane McKeene, a student at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore as the novel begins.
Jane is a highly-skilled but outspoken student often ending up in trouble. A series of events lead her to being exiled to a new model town on the prairies of Kansas with her colleagues Catherine and Jackson. The town of Summerland has its deep secrets, though, and is under the rule of the virulently racist sheriff. The book works as metaphor for the slavery and Jim Crow periods, and how the ruling caste seeks to perpetuate social divisions even under existential threats to humanity. But the book also works as a straight up adventure and horror story, with no shortage of humor, especially in Jane’s wry narration.
Author: Zeyn Joukhadar Title: The Map of Salt and Stars Narrator: Lara Sawalha Publication Info: [New York] : Simon & Schuster Audio, 
This novel is the story of 12-year-old Nour, who grows up in Manhattan, but after the death of her father, her mother takes the family back to their native Syria. Nour find herself an outsider, unable to speak Arabic. Unfortunately, their move to Syria coincides with a time of increasing protests that grow into the Arab Spring and then the Syrian Civil War. Nour and her family become refugees crossing the Middle East and North Africa.
Throughout the novel, Nour tells herself her father’s story of Rawiya, a girl from hundreds of years earlier, who disguised herself as a boy and has adventures traveling around the Meditteranean. The two stories interweave through the novel, intersecting in the similarities of the two protagonists.
The novel is a good story and in Nour and Rawiya has two characters that readers can identify. It’s a good introduction for young adult readers (and old adults like me) to the issues of contemporary Syria from the perspective of a child.
This weird and creepy horror novella set in a resort town in Argentina. It’s narrated in a conversation between Amanda, the novel’s protagonist who slowly uncovers dark secrets from a boy named David. The book doubles as an environmental fable as the children of the town, starting with David, are poisoned by a toxin that spreads through the community, including Amanda and her daughter Nina. The sparse novel serves as an attempt to unravel the source of the problem.
Toni Morrison’s fifth novel, Beloved, is probably her most famous and also the first of her works set in the 19th century and dealing with the effects of slavery. Set in 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio, it focuses on a freed woman named Sethe who shares a house with her youngest daughter, Denver. Because the house is believed to be haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s first-born daughter, Sethe’s two sons left home early and Denver’s life is one of social isolation.
Things change with the arrival of Paul D., a man who was enslaved on the same plantation with Sethe. He begins a (somewhat awkward) sexual relationship with Sethe, encourages Denver to leave the house for social activities, and seemingly drives away the ghost haunting the house. But things change again with the arrival of young woman named Beloved. Sethe believes she is the embodiment of her dead child because “BELOVED” was all she could afford to carve on her tombstone. Beloved affects all the residents of the household in different, negative ways.
Beloved is a ghost story, whether or not you believe that Beloved is actually a ghost, because it deals with the haunting trauma and pain of slavery. The novel frequently flashes back to Sethe’s life on the Sweet Home plantation, her relationship with her husband Halle, and the abuse they suffered. The book is a characters study of sorts as well, as several of the characters – both in the main timeline and in flashback – take turns reflecting on their life, relationships, and suffering.
Beloved has always been a challenging book for me to read. But I also I believe it is purposefully unsettling to provoke thought on slavery and its painful legacy and generational trauma.