When I heard that Toni Morrison was coming out with a new novel, I was absolutely excited. I loved Paradise and Beloved (so much so that I've never wr...moreWhen I heard that Toni Morrison was coming out with a new novel, I was absolutely excited. I loved Paradise and Beloved (so much so that I've never written a review of either of them) so I pre-ordered a copy of Home as soon as I could. I got my copy yesterday (the release day) and I finished it this morning. I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting, but this novella was different altogether from any of my expectations.
This novella was very different from other Morrison books that I've read. (I'm calling it a novella because it is only 147 pages long. I know some of you don't like the term, but I do, so I'm using it.) It was, first and foremost, easy to read. Beloved took me over a month to get through because it was so dense and so difficult; Home took me only a few hours. I was, I have to admit, a little surprised and even disappointed at how easy the prose was. Though the chapters switch between narrators, with a majority of the chapters being from Frank's perspective, the narrators of each chapter are always characters that have been previously introduce and are always identified in the first few sentences of their chapter. The reader never has to figure out who is talking or what is going on, so long as they can remember names. The chapters alternate between the story itself, told by the various narrators, and chapters in which Frank addresses the author directly, telling them what really happened, how he really felt, and occasionally correcting things that the author previously wrote. I really enjoyed those chapters, because they called attention to the act of storytelling itself, to the fact that someone who is not the characters is writing these things, to the idea that sometimes the author messes things up. I thought that technique was very cool, and it isn't something I've seen Morrison do before.
Possibly because the book was so short, I had a hard time connecting to the characters the way I have with her other novels. While they are good round characters, they aren't nearly as fleshed out as Sethe or the women from Paradise. I feel like this was more a novel of setting and theme than of characters, which is usually ok by me, but since this book was about Frank finding his sense of home, I wanted to connect with him a bit more. While it let me down in character development, it was great in setting. You get a good sense from the writing of what life was like for poor black people in the South, the way that injustice and violence from whites and the police was normal, an everyday hazard to be avoided rather than something surprising or unusual. Home includes a lot of the things that were happening at the time, segregation, eugenics, bebop, and obviously the Korean war. Mostly these elements are woven into the story seamlessly and organically. To balance out the injustice and sadness there were always communities, churches, and helpful strangers who supported each other where law and prejudice let them down. I loved that this book showed the ways that black people rallied and helped each other. So often we think of blacks before the civil rights movement as being poor downtrodden helpless people, but the reality is that they were often very strong, supporting each other and getting through with hard work, community, and a refusal to let poverty and hate grind them down. I think this book did a great job showing that without watering down the real pain of injustice and violence that comes with war and segregation. It's a delicate balance, but for the most part I think it's a balance that Home strikes very well.
As I mentioned earlier, the writing in Home is much easier and simpler than in the other Morrison novels I've read. The themes were generally just as subtle and nuanced as I expect from her, with the situations, problems, and solutions feeling real and honest rather than contrived or pedantic. That said, some parts of the last few chapters felt a little too obvious for me. Unlike in Beloved, in Home Morrison basically hands the reader the solution or moral that Cee and Frank have to find, explaining it to us in clear language. While this isn't always a bad thing, and in some novels those revelations are often the most beautiful parts, in Home it felt a little too easy. Maybe it's because I was expecting something more like her other novels, but the simplicity of those last few chapters left me a bit disappointed. They were beautiful, thematic, and they structurally balanced out the novel, but they just felt too easy.
So, after all this, what did I think of Home? It was good, definitely, but it certainly wasn't her best novel. I think it would be a perfect introduction to Toni Morrison for people who haven't read her books and don't want to start with anything too difficult. It has all of her usual themes, her lovely use of setting, and her realistic characters, but it's shorter in length and has much easier prose. For people who don't usually read difficult literary fiction, this is the perfect introduction to Toni Morrison. For those of us who love her partially because of her difficulty, this probably won't stand out as one of her best novels. The writing was much more mature than in The Bluest Eye, but it wasn't as complex or as moving as Paradise or Beloved. I would definitely recommend it, but it isn't going to join her other works on the list of my favorite novels of all time.
Rating: 4 stars Recommendations: Readable prose, realistic setting, ok character development. A quick, enjoyable, and contemplative read from a wonderful author. Not as substantial as some of her other works.(less)
If you know me, you know that I am a big classics reader, so I thought that it would be fun to get The Western Lit Survival Kit and get a few laughs o...moreIf you know me, you know that I am a big classics reader, so I thought that it would be fun to get The Western Lit Survival Kit and get a few laughs out of summaries and ratings she gives. As soon as I got the book, I opened to some classic books that I'd already read, just to get a taste for how she writes and what she's like. To put it lightly, I was not pleased, and my unhappiness with this book grew the more I read. (If you don't like negative reviews, you should just stop now. You have been warned.)
The idea behind this book isn't bad. She has a section for each author where she gives some basic info on their biography, style, subject matter, and whatever literary movements they were involved in. Then she talks about a few of their most well-known works, and ends with a chart that rates each book by that author for importance, accessibility, and fun, on a scale of 1-10. The idea is that if I wanted to read some Hemingway, but I didn't know which book to chose, I could go to the Hemingway section, read a little about him, get a summary of some of his books, and decide which of them to read based on the summaries and ratings. It sounds fun, right? Well, while it works in theory, in practice this book absolutely fails on all fronts. Let me give you some examples.
First, her summaries and comparisons of books are very often not true, or based entirely on her (very strange) opinion. You all know how much I love T.S. Eliot, so naturally I read his section to see what she would say. First of all, she doesn't even mention his plays. Secondly, she describes the Four Quartets only in terms of Eliot's religious beliefs, when any research at all would have shown her that they are definitely about more than that. Her description of the Quartets, one of the most transcendent and ecstatic poems I've ever read, and one of my favorites, ends with "Okay, it's boring." Wow, thanks for the informed and nuanced commentary. But hey, at least she says Prufrock is wonderful, right?
Look, I understand. Not everyone likes T.S. Eliot like I do. Knowing this, I flipped back toward the Whitman section, in hopes that maybe he fit her taste better. She again calls him boring. Whitman, who was excited about everything, boring! She says that Whitman is best read in small doses while Dickinson is best read in large bunches, which is exactly the opposite of how the two should be read, in my opinion. She also spends 3 out of her 5 paragraphs on Whitman wondering whether or not he was gay. While that may be an interesting question, and while it is relevant to his poetry (though again she misses the fact that it's his own soul he's talking about in that one part of Song of Myself, not another person) there is not reason to spend over half of your very short allotted space on Whitman musing about his sexuality. That is just wasteful and absurd. I would hate to see someone base their poetry reading on such lopsided and sometimes downright mistaken commentary.
But hey, maybe she just isn't good at poetry in general. Maybe she will make more sense when she writes about prose. Sadly, no. She completely dismisses Poe's short stories as boring. Boring, seriously? Attack the quality of the writing if you want, but they are anything but boring. She dismisses Heart of Darkness as having "prose excess" and too much "emoting," and says that Ulysses is a novel full of "bad ideas," which only works because of Joyce's personality. What? She also says that Anne Bronte's only contribution was being "the pretty one." I'm sorry, but when it comes to both poetry and prose, Sandra Newman doesn't know what she's talking about. What made her think she was qualified enough to write a book on the subject?
If you want more concrete examples of why this book is entirely useless, you need only to look at the accessibility rating. I honestly don't think she knows what the word means. Accessibility should mean how easy the book is to read for people who don't read the classics as their career. How readable is the book? How difficult? Is the language old or dense? Does it take work? So, lets compare some of her accessibility ratings, and see which books she thinks are easy or hard to read, shall we?
Kipling: 0 (Including the novels she said were interesting to 10-year-olds. What?) Ulysses and Finnegans Wake: 1 (No, Finnegans Wake is more difficult than Ulysses) King Lear: 2 The Sound and the Fury: 3 Macbeth: 3 W.B. Yeats: 4 (As difficult as The Four Quartets? Harder than The Waste Land?) Heart of Darkness: 4 The Four Quartets: 4 Leaves of Grass: 5 (Harder than The Waste Land and The Inferno? Really?) Romeo and Juliet: 5 Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: 5 The Waste Land and Prufrock: 6 (No, The Waste Land is harder than Prufrock.) The Inferno: 6 A Tale of Two Cities: 7 The Great Gatsby: 7 War and Peace: 7 The Sun Also Rises: 8 Candide: 9 (Really? Easier than Fitzgerald and Hemingway?) Anna Karenina: 10 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: 10 Pride and Prejudice: 10
Basically, and I cannot say this emphatically enough, Sandra Newman has no idea what she's talking about. While some of her writing is humorous, her summaries of works and authors are too busy trying to be hip, snarky, or funny to bother being accurate or informative at all. Her accessibility ratings makes absolutely no sense, and her ratings for fun aren't really that much better. I absolutely dread the idea of this book falling into the hands of any students, for fear of the irrevocable damage that it might do both to their understanding of literature and to their brains as a whole.
Rating: 1 Recommendations: Do not waste your time on it, and for the love of all that is good, do not give this to a student.(less)
Veronica is another book I picked up because I had to; it was assigned for my Contemporary Novel class. Now, if you know me, you know that I usually l...moreVeronica is another book I picked up because I had to; it was assigned for my Contemporary Novel class. Now, if you know me, you know that I usually love books that I read for class, so this was not necessarily a deterrent. In fact, that class had been really enjoyable so far, so I was looking forward to discovering another great book. Sadly, Veronica didn't quite live up to my expectations.
Set between the 60's and the 90's, Veronica is the story of a young model named Allison and her friendship with an older woman, Veronica, who is dying of AIDS. While the present action is a fifty-year-old Allison narrating her day in the first person present, describing going to work and walking home and other routine things, the timeline continuously jumps back into the past, telling the story of Allison's life, how she got into modeling, her rise and fall in the career, and her friendship with Veronica. The novel spends more time in the past, going over memories and events in Veronica's life, than it does in the present action. This jumping back and forth in time, mixed with the rarely-used first person present point of view, makes the novel hard to understand at first, but within an hour of reading you get used to it.
The writing in Veronica is sometimes very beautiful, and it's clear that Gaitskill can turn a phrase, but that beauty is marred by the self-consciousness of the writing. I was almost always aware of the writing itself, and it gave me a feeling that the author was trying too hard to sound meaningful or artsy. It came off as self-conscious and even pretentious at times, and that really annoyed me while I was reading. I'm all for evocative artistic writing, but often this book skipped past beautiful and went straight into the realm of truly purple prose. The first person present point of view, while an interesting choice, wasn't executed as well as I would have liked in some cases. There were times when Allison was thinking things that no-one could possible think in the present. No-one sums up their entire friendship with someone and that friend's philosophy on life in the few seconds it takes to shake their hand, and those kinds of realizations and philosophizing should have been used in retrospection only. In a book otherwise focused on accurately portraying consciousness through flashbacks and sentence structure that mimics thought patterns, this kind of inaccuracy sticks out like a sore thumb. Add that to the times when the author had a "Here's a metaphor, let me explain it to you" moment, and the writing in this book annoyed more than it pleased.
Veronica wasn't a complete failure. I could tell what the author was trying to do, and there were times when she succeeded. The juxtaposition of cruelty and beauty in her descriptions and the sequence of events was a good way of communicating the theme of the novel. Though the tone was too detached for me to ever feel for the characters, the events that took place were often glamorously violent or destructive, and that has its own interest. Still, the occasional shock value of the plot and the attempts at thematic meaning just weren't enough to make this novel worthwhile. If I hadn't been reading it for class, I don't think I would have finished it, and I'm almost positive that by this time next year I will have forgotten it completely.
Rating: 2.5 Recommendations: Lots of sex, drugs, cursing, and other things of that nature. (less)