Book Review: Beloved by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Beloved
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2006 [originally published 1987]
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

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.

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Sula by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
TitleSula
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2002 (originally published in 1973)
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Morrison’s second novel is another one that I read on my own outside of college classes, and the one I remember the least.  The novel is set in the fictional town of Medallion, Ohio in the Black neighborhood jokingly known as The Bottom despite being on the hilltops adjacent to the white part of town in the valley.

The main plot of the novel focuses on the friendship of two girls, Nel and Sula, growing up in the 1920s.  Nel is from a stable family with rigid rules while Sula’s mother and grandmother are considered unconventional and loose.  Their close friendship turns on the accidental death of a child they were playing with, something they chose to keep secret.

As they grow up, they go in different directions with Nel settling into a conventional marriage while Sula goes away to college and is rumored to have many sexual affairs.  When Sula returns after a ten year absence, she is decried as the personification of evil, and unites against her, especially when Sula sleeps with Nel’s husband.  Nel and Sula do reconcile by the end of the novel.  A framing device set in the present day notes that The Bottom has ceased to exist and the hills have been gentrified for white peoples’ home.

In Sula, Morrison tells a story of a friendship between two Black women, something unusual in fiction up to that point. She creates two fully-developed, nuanced characters in Nel and Sula.  One chooses a conventional life and the other follows her own initiative but neither is judged as being the “good” or “bad” one, at least by the author.  The novel also shows the deleterious effects on a community living in segregation, and the internecine squabbles among Black people between “respectability” and embracing one’s own identity

Rating: ****

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance


Author: J. D. Vance
TitleHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Narrator:  J. D. Vance
Publication Info:Harper Audio, 2016
Summary/Review:

This book is being touted as offering insight into the Trump voter, but I think if you go into the book with that mindset you will be misled.  Nevertheless it is an interesting memoir of life for the self-proclaimed “hillbilly” culture of Appalachia.  Vance tells the story of his family from rural Kentucky and their migration along the “Hillbilly Highway” to a factory town in Ohio.  His community is one of strong family ties, rugged independence, and fierce patriotism.  But it is also a place of domestic violence, substance abuse, and extreme poverty.  Vance’s beloved grandmother, Mamaw, who primarily raised Vance is a key figure in the book. One of the most interesting political observations  in the book is that Mamaw could alternately support right-wing anti-government ideas and social democratic government programs.  The contradiction of these seemingly extreme viewpoints is due to the fact the established middle of both Republicans and Democrats have abandoned the ordinary working people.  Vance’s story is not typical for an Appalachian person as he joins the Marines, studies at Ohio State, gets a law degree at Yale, and now works at an investment firm in Silicon Valley. A lot of Vance’s book is the story of how he “got out” and doesn’t reflect the perspectives of those unable to “get out” or those for whom “getting out” is not an option to be desired.  With those caveats in mind, this is a good slice of life of part of our country and our people who are too often overlooked.

Recommended books: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, and The Other America: Poverty in the United States by Michael Harrington
Rating: ***