The Bluest Eye- Toni Morrison

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“Being a minority in both caste and class, we moved about anyway on the hem of life, struggling to consolidate our weaknesses and hang on, or to creep singly up into the major folds of the garment. Our peripheral existence, however, was something we had learned to deal with–probably because it was abstract.”- Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

I’m rereading Morrison’s books in chronological order in 2016 and I created a group on Goodreads for a few of us who are interested in doing the same thing. Discussing this book with others has been very interesting because we all have different perspectives and can share them, expanding our own understanding of the book, it’s been a great experience.

It’s been four years since I first read The Bluest Eye and I was extremely touched and saddened by it the first time around. I count it as one of my favourite Morrison books and I’m glad to say that after a reread it’s still very much so. I’m trying hard to find the words to describe how I feel about this book and it’s still hard because it’s a gut-wrenching book which I love, though “love” sounds like the wrong word for it: how can I love a book that is filled with so much pain, sadness and grief? This book condenses so much tragedy, despair and sadness in a relatively small space. What do you focus on? It can get a bit overwhelming. Morrison’s advice seems to be:  “There is really nothing more to say–except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.”

Whenever I discuss this book with people I know, Pecola is often the first name that comes up.  Pecola, the poor, unloved child who prayed for blue eyes. It was hard not to draw comparisons between her and Celie (The Colour Purple), another abused black girl who was called ugly by all those around her. And I think of all the little black girls I’ve known who hated being black, who hated their hair, their noses, their eye colour, who prayed for “good hair”, lighter skin complexion etc.

Morrison shows the vulnerability of children so well, and the consequences of parents not telling them what they need to know in enough detail, which results in them being forced to draw conclusions on their own. What they aren’t told, they glean from observations and discussions with each other. Sometimes the truth isn’t known until they are older:

“My mother’s anger humiliates me; her words chafe my cheeks, and I am crying. I do not know that she is not angry at me, but at my sickness.”

There are so many parts of the book that show children as voiceless, black children in particular. There’s the issue of representation and how the white dolls our parents thought we wanted probably did more harm than good. I think this is an important book in revealing the other America. This video in particular was insightful:  The Bluest Eye book trailer

My book had an afterword by Morrison which I’m so glad I read. I had no idea that this book was inspired by a conversation she’d had with an elementary school friend who prayed for blue eyes. It’s conversations like this that never leave you, it seems, but it might take you until you are an adult to understand the true meaning of what those words held and what they say about our society. Like Malcolm X asked, “Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet?

“And twenty years later I was still wondering about how one learns that. Who told her? Who made her feel that it was better to be a freak than what she was? Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale?…I focused, therefore, on how something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female.”– Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye afterword

 

Native Son- Richard Wright

“These were the rhythms of his life: indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and moments of anger—like water ebbing and flowing from the tug of a far-away invisible force. Being this way was a need of his as deep as eating. He was like a strange plant blooming in the day and wilting at night; but the sun that made it bloom and the cold darkness that made it wilt were never seen. It was his own sun and darkness, a private and personal sun and darkness.”  Richard Wright, Native Son

This story is still heavily on my mind. I think if I’d read it earlier, I would have reacted to it differently. There is so much going on it has been hard for me to write a coherent review but I feel compelled to write down some of my thoughts, regardless of how disjointed they may be.

The story starts off with a poor black family trying to kill a rat in their apartment, it reeks of poverty from the start and quickly materializes into showing us the dark side of racist American society. It introduces us to our protagonist, Bigger Thomas, who I’d heard of even before I read this book; I knew that he had accidentally killed a white girl, and then killed a black girl to cover his crime. I’d even read James Baldwin’s literary criticism of this book, but there was more to this story than that. Had I known, I wouldn’t have stayed away from this novel for this long.

The mind-numbing lives black people had to live was clearly illustrated from the start. The drugs, alcohol, women, pool playing, cheap movies, religion….all were seen as ways to not think about what was going on around them. As Bigger said, “He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair.”

My feelings about the book were in part influenced by the current civil rights movement in the States. If that hadn’t been going on, the book would still have been horrific, but with it, it was even more visceral. It would have been more satisfying to have finished reading the book and said, “Thank God all that crazy racism stuff is over,” but watch the news on any given day and you know it’s alive and well.

I was fascinated by how the whites and blacks interacted. In the book, we have a rich white family, the Dalton’s, who are actually the good guys but even they had a problematic way of looking at, and dealing with, the blacks they purported to be helping. They made them appear so simplistic, almost like children. On the other hand, Mary, the daughter, did not really understand that her being overly friendly to Bigger, or inviting him to eat with her, was actually making him uncomfortable and could cause serious repercussions for him. In her privileged position she failed to have much empathy or understanding for Bigger. I saw Mary and her boyfriend Jan as behaving like old-school anthropologists, going to observe blacks “in their natural habitat”, as it were. Their actions were very voyeuristic and I could understand Bigger’s rage at their behaviour. The psychological aspects of race and poverty is not something they understood, coming from privileged backgrounds. There was the lack of privacy the poor had, the fact that their lives were so clearly on display and that they had little to no control over their lives that made Jan and Mary’s actions particularly degrading.

To be honest, this book scared me. It scared me because it showed that you can have groups of people living in close proximity, yet not knowing anything about each other, instead holding on to an alien image of the other:

“To Bigger and his kind white people were not really people; they were a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one’s feet in the dark. As long as he and his black folks did not go beyond certain limits, there was no need to fear that white force. But whether they feared it or not, each and every day of their lives they lived with it; even when words did not sound its name, they acknowledged its reality. As long as they lived here in this prescribed corner of the city, they paid mute tribute to it.”

It scared me because people are treated according to their race, and like it or not, recent events have shown this. It scared me that the coloured body can be exploited, even in death.

Poor Bessie, she said: “I just work! I ain’t had no happiness, no nothing. I just work. I’m black and I work and don’t bother nobody…” Probably the cry of so many at the time. And to make matters even worse, in death her body is exploited. What made her death even sadder and more tragic was this:

“Though he had killed a black girl and a white girl, he knew that it would be for the death of the white girl that he would be punished. The black girl was merely “evidence.”

The media whipping people into a frenzy, not just with race but with Islamophobia, is happening now, just as it happened back then:

“Several hundred Negroes resembling Bigger Thomas were rounded up…” Like the panelist at a Black History Month event I attended this week said, regarding his having been stopped by the Vancouver police who said he fitted a description of a black man wanted for robbery, “You mean a black man between 5’ 2” and 7’ 3?”

This book showed me the impact of racism in an even more profound way than in other books I’ve read.I don’t think I will ever forget it.

1984- George Orwell

 

“Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.”– George Orwell, 1984

It’s been over 5 years since I last read 1984 and I still find the storyline as horrific as ever. It’s terrifying to think of a world in which your own children are spies for the government and can turn you in, where cameras are watching you 24/7, where one could be accused of committing a “facecrime” or having an “ownlife,” ; a world in which we live nervously  worrying about whether the sensitive machinery that is watching you will pick up an increase in heartbeat that may incriminate us.

When I first read this book I imagined a similar dystopic world taking place in a Communist country or perhaps in a dictatorship like the one so many of my relatives were raised in. Now I realize it could just as well take place in a so-called democracy under several guises, and that’s the scary part. My mind did wander quite a bit while I was reading this book, thinking of the eerie possibilities, trying to find parallels between what I was reading and what I was observing in society. We are witnessing so much propaganda which may not be as obvious as some of the hilarious pro-Stalin and pro-Mao posters that I’ve seen online and in history books, but it’s there in an often subtler form.

I think one of the scariest parts for me was seeing how language can be used to manipulate and control: “All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory.’ Reality control’, they called it: in Newspeak, ‘doublethink.’ Language is definitely becoming more simplified and some of the words that are making it into the dictionary are just laughable.

I kept thinking about the following Virginia Woolf quote while reading this book:

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”– Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Freedom of mind is something I take for granted. We all want to believe we’re untouched by all this propaganda but are we really? Yes, this is definitely a cautionary tale. I wonder how many are listening.

Beloved – Toni Morrison

“Darkness is stronger and swallows them like minnows.” – Toni Morrison, Beloved

“Beloved” is a beautiful, haunting story that is set around the time following the slavery emancipation declaration. It’s mysterious and supernatural, as well as being a love story, a tale of horror, forgiveness, loss and confusion. It’s very poetic and lyrical, full of metaphors and powerful imagery. The book tells the story of Sethe, a runaway slave who has left her home in the South but is still living in the past. Her deceased two year old baby supposedly haunts 124, the house in which she and her daughter Denver live. Later, we find out the awful way in which the baby died and that makes the story even more tragic. The house is an ominous character in the book; it had a life of its own. I felt the hopelessness of Sethe and Denver who had no place else to go:

“So Sethe and the girl Denver did what they could, and what the house permitted for her. Together they waged a perfunctory battle against the outrageous behaviour of that place; against turned-over slop jars, smacks on the behind, and gusts of sour air. For they understood the source of the outrage as well as they knew the source of light.”

The love story in this book is a different kind of love story, a love story that involves a couple,Sethe and Paul D, who were once slaves. How can people move on from being slaves to being in free relationships? As slaves they became accustomed to their loved ones, their parents, children and lovers being sold or running away. The past has left scar marks like the scars in the shape of a chokeberry tree on Sethe’s back.

And then she moved him. Just when doubt, regret and every single unasked question was packed away, long after he believed he had willed himself into being, at the very time and place he wanted to take root- she moved him. From room to room. Like a rag doll.”

What I found very powerful was the term Morrison used “rememory,” which is remembering memories. I experienced it when I visited a slave memorial in Zanzibar and entered the dungeons where the slaves had been kept. Obviously the slaves aren’t there anymore but I felt a multitude of emotions and I felt as though they were still there in some form.

Ibrahim showing me the dungeons were the slaves were kept.
Ibrahim showing me the dungeons were the slaves were kept.

I found it nearly impossible to read large chunks of the book at a time; I had to take breaks. Toni Morrison stands in a class of her own.This book was beautiful yet tragic; a true masterpiece.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X- Malcolm X


“I’ve had enough of someone else’s propaganda. I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” – Malcolm X

In High School my history syllabus covered just a few pages on African-American civil rights heroes. The majority of those pages were on Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X was barely mentioned. After reading this book I was perplexed! I wonder why Malcolm X hasn’t been given the same respect as Dr. King; he contributed so much to the civil rights movement as well, yet my knowledge on this man was very minimal.

How did Malcolm Little become Malcolm X aka El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz? This is what this book is all about. His transformation was remarkable especially as he spent time in foster homes and was a hustler in Detroit. He lived in an America where smart black kids were discouraged from being lawyers etc, and thus dropped out of school at young ages. It made me think for the umpteenth time just how can society malign and vilify black people, especially black men, when society itself is responsible for restricting them in the first place?

Among the many things I admired about Malcolm X was his thirst for knowledge. He is a great advertisement for autodidactism and how effective and transformative self-education can be:

“I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there, in prison, that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.”

It was hard for me to read this book and not compare Malcolm X’s philosophy to Dr. King’s. I always thought I would adhere more closely to Dr. King’s peaceful, nonviolence philosophy, but after reading this book I do agree with Malcolm X’s ideology as well. Not that I am advocating violence, but radicalness and action is sometimes needed, as are anger and indignation. As Malcolm X said, ““So early in life, I learned that if you want something, you had better make some noise.” I feel there is so much to learn from both men so I won’t say I prefer one doctrine over another. At the same time I wonder, how can people not become militant and revolutionary after having experienced so much cruelty and discrimination?

Another thing I found interesting in this autobiography was Malcolm X’s religious transformation; from having been raised Christian, to entering the Nation of Islam (NOI), he finally found his spiritual home in “mainstream” Islam. His depiction of his trip to Mecca in particular was very enlightening and a turning point in his life. His adoration of Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the NOI, was quite sad, especially as Muhammad seems to have been a bit of a weirdo. Muhammad said something along the lines of too-short women marrying tall men and vice versa is ridiculous. Also, he said that a man should ideally marry a woman half his age plus 7 years.

Malcolm is unapologetic about his views in this book and that’s what I love best about this autobiography. His writing is very candid and so informative. This is an important book for all to read. The prevalence of eurocentrism in the world is astounding and I don’t think we really realize just how established it is. Malcolm X dissected the race problem so well, I felt inspired.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover- D.H. Lawrence

D.H. Lawrence is a writer I’m growing more fond of. He really does have a way with words.

Connie Chatterley, in my opinion, was a rather insipid character.  She marries Clifford Chatterley, who gets injured in the war and comes back paralyzed. Consequently, she begins an affair with the gameskeeper, Oliver Mellors and discovers who she is as a woman.Lawrence definitely pushed the boundaries for 1920s standards.

I did sympathize with Connie’s feelings of restlessness, aggravated by the fact that her invalid husband was so insensitive and selfish.

“Connie was aware, however, of a growing restlessness. Out of her disconnexion, a growing restlessness was taking possession of her like madness.”

“…deep inside herself, a sense of injustice, of being degraded, began to bloom in Connie,”

 
However, overall I felt Connie was rather vapid and boring.

I also like Lawrence for his descriptions of nature, especially when he anthropomorphizes it: ” And they were there, the short-stemmed flowers, rustling and fluttering and shivering, so bright and alive, but with nowhere to hide their faces, as they turned them away from the wind.”

Bravo, Lawrence!

American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis

 

 

So far on this blog I’ve only reviewed books I thought were quite good. This is the first book review I am doing of a book I really didn’t like at all. I had initially stopped reading it after 80 pages or so, the reason being there was too much racism, sexism, homophobia,narcissism and of course violence, for me to handle. It was just a mess.

However, I really dislike leaving a book unfinished so after some consideration and some gentle nudging from a Goodreads friend, I decided to finish reading the book. After reading the remaining chapters, my opinion hasn’t changed; I still dislike the book. Yes, the title does clearly suggests psychotic events will be found in the book but I wasn’t ready for the extreme graphic descriptions of brutality depicted. They are honestly the most brutal I have ever read, and as I am a very squeamish person, there was no way I was ever going to enjoy this book.

I also got bored by the repetitive descriptions of food and fashion. I understand why the author felt compelled to put them  there as a sort of parody of American culture in the 80s, but it got annoying after a while.

What I did like were the few chapters that discussed 1980s music icons, Whitney Houston and Genesis in particular. I love 80s music and so I enjoyed those chapters a lot.

I am proud of myself for placing myself outside of my reading comfort-zone at least, but I’m not sure whether finishing the book was helpful in any way, apart from the fact that it made me think of reasons why I disliked the book, and it counts towards my personal banned book challenge.