Monday, January 09, 2006

Top 20 Books, #8


Even though ranked #8, Toni Morrison's Beloved, is in a precarious spot on my list.

Like any list, there are outside determining factors that influence the list. A writer's popularity, especially one that has been so magnificently championed by Oprah Winfrey, does influence one from time to time.

However, it boils down to this: Beloved is an amazing work of literature that stands alone and brilliant in the landscape.

Morrison was awarded the Nobel prize in literature in 1993 after writing 6 novels. I would argue that this book is the diamond in her crown, and what everything she writes will be judged against.

My introduction to Ms. Morrison's work came at Occidental College. [A digression: I just went to the Oxy home page to get the link to attach above and there are hula dancers on it! Cool!] I don't know if I read her novella The Bluest Eye first, but it was in my junior year, in Professor Eric Newhall's Contemporary American Fiction class. The novel was so new, in the Fall of 1987, that the campus bookstore didn't carry it (go figure), so I ended up and getting it at Crown Books in Glendale where I was pleased to see that it was heavily discounted because of its place on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Beloved rocked. And I'm sure it helped that, while reading it, I was learning about it as well. The class rocked, I wish I still had the syllabus to share with you, but it was a magnificent list of amazing novels (Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and Heller's Catch-22 jump to the forefront of my memory).

Here is an amazing site devoted to the book, including links to Toni Morrison reading an excerpt and Margaret Atwood's review of the book for The New York Times. What follows is a brief excerpt from the first chapter:


"He looked at her then, closely. Closer than he had when she first rounded the house on wet and shining legs, holding her shoes and stockings up in one hand, her skirts in the other. Halle's girl--the one with iron eyes and backbone to match. He had never seen her hair in Kentucky. And though her face was eighteen years older than when last he saw her, it was softer now. Because of the hair. A face too still for comfort; irises the same color as her skin, which, in that
still face, used to make him think of a mask with mercifully punched-out eyes. Halle's woman. Pregnant every year including the year she sat by the fire telling him she was going to run. Her three children she had already packed into a wagonload of others in a caravan of Negroes crossing the river. They were to
be left with Halle's mother near Cincinnati. Even in that tiny shack, leaning so close to the fire you could smell the heat in her dress, her eyes did not pick up a flicker of light. They were like two wells into which he had trouble gazing. Even punched out they needed to be covered, lidded, marked with some sign to warn folks of what that emptiness held. So he looked instead at the fire while she told him, because her husband was not there for the telling. Mr. Garner was dead and his wife had a lump in her neck the size of a sweet potato and unable to speak to anyone. She leaned as close to the fire as her pregnant belly allowed and told him, Paul D, the last of the Sweet Home men."


Rereading this now, I am reminded how vividly descriptive a writer Ms. Morrison is. Her follow-up to Beloved was Jazz (1992) which, in itself, was quite good, but paled in the shadow of its predecessor. Paradise (1998) was a strong tale as well, and peaked with her "popularity". When Love was published in 2003, I had no interest in reading it, perhaps due to the level of Morrison's fame. Who knows? I tend to disregard books considered popular. Since reading Beloved, then reading Morrison's previous 4 novels, I had come to anticipate each new offering, but something changed.

Nonetheless, I still point back and acknowledge that Beloved belongs at #8. At least for now.

2 comments:

bonnie said...

Funny you posted about this when you did. I had just picked this one out from a giveaway bin here at Scholastic; I'd never read it before but knew it by reputation.

What I can't get over is that this book actually forced me to read it at it's own very measured pace. I have this tendency to speed read a book the first time, knock it out in a couple of sittings - then, if I enjoyed the high-speed flyover, I'll go back and savor it.

This one - within a couple of pages I was completely knocked out of my normal reading habits. I can't remember the last time a book demanded my immediate & full attention to every word that way. I loved it.

(end of gush, back to work)

Oxypoet said...

Thanks for your input. Good to see you enjoyed it. As much as I am tempted to take this off my list, it keeps fighting its way back on.