Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Favorite Fiction: Toni Morrison

Over the years, Toni Morrison has earned great respect as an author.  As the winner of the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Pearl Buck Award (just to name a few), Toni Morrison has been a tremendous influence on American literature.  Now, at the age of 81, she is publishing her 10th novel, Home, which will be released next week on May 8.  In celebration of her many accomplishments and to gear up for the new release, here are Hooked Bookworm's top 5 Toni Morrison novels:

Tar Baby
Set mostly in the Caribbean, Tar Baby tells the story of the beautiful and privileged Jadine as she embarks upon a turbulent and passionate relationship with Son, a poor, starving man who is neither refined nor privileged, but magnetically attractive nonetheless.  Tar Baby is a love story, but it's also about the cultural and personal conflicts that Jadine and Son face as a couple crossing socioeconomic boundaries and challenging cultural norms.  Both of them are desperately seeking to establish an identity for the sake of their future together, but they struggle with the philosophical and social compromises that each of them must endure.  Tar Baby is more casual and less intense than some of Morrison's other novels, but it is equally moving and powerful.

The Bluest Eye
Published in 1970, this novel is completely devastating and heartbreaking as it follows Pecola Breedlove, a young, poor black girl whose only wish is to have beautiful blue eyes - like Shirley Temple's or Dick and Jane's.  Challenging notions of family, beauty, and sexuality, Morrison presents the dichotomy of the real vs. the ideal in The Bluest Eye.  Highly criticized for its use of rape, incest, and child molestation, this novel is a very intense read, but important in its bold and blatant challenge of social and cultural precedents.

Set in the early 1900s, this novel tells the story of Nel and Sula, two women who have been friends their whole lives despite vast differences in upbringing.  Nel likes to fit in and play it safe, while Sula is bold and fearless - constantly challenging social and racial norms.  After Nel gets married, Sula disappears for nearly a decade, and Nel hears rumors of her friend's promiscuity and disregard for racial, political, and personal boundaries.  When Sula returns to their small, Ohio town, Nel's suspicions are confirmed when she catches her friend in a very compromising position.  Their friendship is declared over, but neither of them can escape the deep ties that bind their relationship, and they both remain distantly obsessed with each other.  A story of intense friendship, racial tension, and sexual/social standards of whites vs blacks, Sula inspires an intense discussion of female relationships, the nature of evil, and the ways in which our past shape and define us.

Likely Morrison's most well-known novel, Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1988.  Inspired by the Margaret Garner story, Beloved tells the story of Sethe, a former slave who kills her baby daughter when she and her children face the threat of returning to slavery.  The child is referred to as "Beloved," and she haunts Sethe and her family for many years - a constant reminder of  her mother's actions.  Told through flashbacks and from multiple perspectives, Sethe's story is a harrowing portrayal of slave life and the unconscionable challenges she faced as a mother, a wife, and a woman.  Dealing with issues of memory, loss, forgiveness, grief, and motherhood, Beloved is a dark reminder of the agonizing individual and national consequences of human bondage.  This storyline was adapted into a libretto by Toni Morrison in 2005, entitled Margaret Garner.  It is a powerful and moving piece of musical theatre, but much like the novel, it is also completely devastating and a tragic reenactment of unbelievably real events.

Song of Solomon
Told as a family saga, Song of Solomon is about the members of the Dead family - specifically Macon "Milkman," the story's protagonist.  Milkman is on a journey of reluctant self-discovery, and he unearths some shocking truths about his family along the way.  Dealing with religion, spirituality, history, and identity, Milkman leads readers on a literal and metaphysical journey of truth-seeking, redemption, and clarity.  Song of Solomon reminds us of the powerful nature of history, identity, and family -  and the ways in which our ancestral stories and traditions unknowingly influence our daily lives.

There's a reason why at least one of Toni Morrison's books appears on nearly every "must read" list.  She is simply an amazing storyteller, and an incredibly poignant writer - even if the themes are sometimes painful or disturbing.  If you've never read any of her novels, I would recommend starting with The Bluest Eye.  That's the first one I read, and obviously I was hooked.  Morrison has also written children's books, essays, plays, and one very famous short story, "Recitatif," and it was recently announced that she will receive the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom.