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Reading Sula

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Pamuk’s My Name is Red is too dense to read all in one sitting, so I set it aside for Sula. In Morrison’s Sula, women experience adversities generated from the idea that women should project a certain image in society and maintain a specific role in the home. Most commonly, masculinity is defined by aggression and dominance, whereas femininity is portrayed as emblematic of passivity and submission. The need for women to be submissive in a male-dominated society causes many women to suffer from a lack of individuality and self-expression. Sula and Eva suffer from the victimization of patriarchy, even though the victimization may sometimes be self-inflicted. Morrison portrays the strength perseverance, and determination that reside in women.

[424] Love – Toni Morrison

” He was dead. The dirty one who introduced her to nasty and blamed it on her. He was dead. The powerful one who abandoned his own kin and transferred rule to her playmate. He was dead. Well, good. She would go and view the wreck he left behind. ” (8,165)

Love is probably Toni Morrison’s most accessible novel, free of the unrealistic elements and magical realism that she is known for. In lyrical flashbacks, Morrison slowly reveals the glories and horrors of the past, as she tells the story of Bill Cosey and his famous hotel resort, a premium vacation destination for rich blacks. The hotel has long been closed when the novel begins, but those who have survived his death seem to live forever in the past. Cosey—a grandfather, boss, stranger, father, stranger, and lover—shapes the yearnings and nostalgia that dominates lives of several women long after his death. Their reflections make up the rich tapestry of an intricate family in Love.

Mounting the unlit stairs, glancing over her shoulder, Junior had to guess what the other rooms might hold. It seemed to her that each woman lived in a spotlight separated—or connected—by the darkness between them. (1,25)

Shelters in the family mansion are two feuding women, the Cosey’s widow Heed and her step-granddaughter Christine, who wormed herself back into the family’s fold by claiming filial responsibility for her frail, mentally unsound mother. The arrival of Junior, agirl with mismanaged past Heed hires as a secretary, sets the story in motion. Besides the subplot of Cosey’s suspicious death, the vicious fight over his coffin, the provenance of money, and his disputed will, Morrison unveils how Heed and Christine, a year apart, shared a pure conditional love that bonds the two in friendship until Bill Cosey takes Heed as his bride—when she was only eleven. Their relationship is almost gothic in its passion and ferocity, as their childhood roles are reversed over the years, with Heed the heiress and Christine the servant. Heed has outsmarted all the women in the family and matures to a “grown-up nasty.”

Her struggle with Heed was neither mindless or wasted. She would never forget how she had fought for her, defied her mother to protect her, to give her clothes: dresses, shorts, a bathing suit, sandals; to picnic alone on the beach. They shared stomachache laughter, a secret language, and knew as they slept together that one’s dreaming was the same as the other one’s. (6,132)

For years Christine tries to gather evidence to fight for primacy in the family, but Heed outwits her as well as the watchful hotel cook L (might very well be short for Love), who provides a choral commentary and weaves together the different narratives. L has interfered with the women’s brawl in order to give Cosey a dignified funeral. Although the physical fights withdraw to an acid silence, Heed and Christine invent other ways to underscore their bitterness. If Cosey has stolen their innocence, it’s Christine’s mother that has imbued hate in them such that it enslaves them forever.

In re-creating the family history, Morrison deftly delivers a profound character-study of the women. She forces them to to the edge of endurance, places them in extreme situations, and makes them struggle to identify themselves in order to fulfill an essential self. As in any of her novel, the sense of loss prevails in Love, where opening pangs of guilt, rage, fatigue, and despair all converge to hatred. Arguments seethe and accusations run rife. Like L has reflected early on in the book, every woman has a sad story: mean mothers, false-hearted men or malicious friends. They learn how sudden, how profound loneliness could be and seek love at the expense of their innocence.

He took all my childhood away from me, girl.
He took all of you away from me. (9,194)

Love is an unforgettable novel about friendship, the purity of bond and love, untainted by any racial and sexual label, that is only found in innocent children. The story reminds us that any passion experienced in adulthood is secondary to a child’s first chosen love in terms of innocence and rawness.  Once again in this accomplished novel Morrison advocates that African-American characters can speak for all humanity, even though within the story’s frame they are bound by their culture.

202 pp. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Japanese Literature

Note: This is a pre-programmed post. I’m in Hong Kong for a wedding until Monday, October 6. I will attend to all your comments when I return. Don’t forget to stop by on Monday as I’ll be hosting a stop in the TLC Book Tour for Capote in Kansas by Kim Powers.

I’m aware of the Japanese Reading Challenge, which requires three books in any genres: novel, poetry, graphical novel, and children’s books. The two I’ll share with you might not qualify because the authors aren’t Japanese, but they have been well-received by readers in local bookstores. I picked up these books (both published this year) a while ago waiting to snap into the mood for them.

The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery is set in late nineteenth century Japan. It’s the story of Aurelia, a young French-American girl who, after the death of her mother and her missionary uncle, finds herself lost and alone and in need of a new family. Knowing only a few words of Japanese she hides in a Japanese tea house and is adopted by the family who own it: gradually falling in love with both the Japanese tea ceremony and with her young mistress, Yukako.

The novel is drawn from a history shrouded in secrets about two women, it also portrays resplendent tea parties that women, other than those who are entertaining, are not welcome. Japan’s warriors and well-off men would gather in tatami-floored structures—teahouses—to participate in an event that was equal parts ritual dance and sacramental meal.

The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz is a fictionalized reconstruction of the private history of Haruko, a young woman of good family, who marries the Crown Prince of Japan, the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, in 1959. She is the first non-aristocratic woman to enter the longest-running, almost hermetically sealed, and mysterious monarchy in the world. Met with cruelty and suspicion by the Empress and her minions, Haruko is controlled at every turn. The only interest the court has in her is her ability to produce an heir. After finally giving birth to a son, Haruko suffers a nervous breakdown and loses her voice. However, determined not to be crushed by the imperial bureaucrats, she perseveres.