Publisher: Vintage Genre: Literary Fiction Pages: 206 Format: Paperback Buy Local My Rating: 5/5 stars
In her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison explores the undoing of a young black girl, Pecola, who cannot imagine herself as anything but ugly. The story is told by giving voice to members of the community as they experience Pecola’s story and by slowly unfolding the generational trauma done unto her family. Employing brilliant and beautiful language, Morrison explores the depths of poverty, sexual violence, cultural perception, and the vicious cycle of harm perpetuated by those who themselves are wounded.
From the first page, it is clear that Morrison has a power with her words that is unrivaled by most other writers. Equal parts poetic and challenging, this book has a way of slowly climbing back toward its central figure in the most gratifying ways possible. Even when exploring events that happened many years before Pecola’s birth, the book is always working to highlight another aspect of the harm that has been done unto her by her father and mother, her community, and herself.
While the subject matter is devastating, there is something that can be described as nothing less than joyful when reading Morrison’s work. Her deep vocabulary and creative license takes the reader far, and there is a sense that she is always in control. This, combined with the great empathy that pours out of this book for its characters, makes something that is spectacular to read and hard to put down.
If I had to say what my favorite part of reading this book was, I would say that it is the cast of characters that Morrison assembled to tell Pecola’s story. While what has happened to Pecola is enough to drive the novel all on its own, Morrison uses this instance to bring an entire community to life. In doing so, she paints a fuller picture of exactly what led Pecola to wander the streets muttering to herself.
While reading The Bluest Eye, it quickly became apparent why Morrison is so beloved. If you have not had the opportunity to read her work yet, there is no better time!
Publisher: Doubleday Genre: Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction Pages: 224 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 5/5 stars
In this novel, Whitehead examines the potential of youth and shows how corruption and injustice can so easily crush that potential. By all accounts, Elwood Curtis is a formidable young man—smart, curious, hardworking, and determined—he is even enrolled in college courses while he is still in high school. When Elwood is sent to the Nickel Academy for stealing a car to get to those classes, he finds that he will have to adapt to a harsh new reality if he wants to survive. Elwood discovers the strength to do so through his dedication to the works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which has engrained a deep sense of moral justice within him. At Nickel, however, injustice is bred into the very fabric of the institution.
What most entranced me with this book is the way in which Whitehead masterfully intertwines personal history with the history of an institution. Many chapters of this novel start like the slow panning of a camera until it zooms in on the narrative focal point. No words are wasted, though at times it can feel to the reader as if they are far from the places that the book has previously taken them. Many times I did not think that what I was reading could have anything to do with the Nickel Academy, and then the book would whisper in my ear “trust me.”
I did not feel the full weight of this book’s emotional impact until the epilogue. When I closed the book’s final chapter I was ready to give it a four star rating because I felt somewhat confused and dissatisfied. I could not have felt more different when I turned the final page of the novel. Hold on, this is an emotional and tumultuous ride worth seeing through to the very end.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 2019 Genre: Literary Fiction Pages: 256 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 5/5 stars
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong, is written as a candid letter from Vietnamese immigrant Little Dog to his illiterate mother in which he recants his version of their family and his personal history. In the letter, he explores both his mother and grandmother’s experience as Vietnamese citizens during the American war, as well as their subsequent stories as immigrants in America. He also details his understanding of American culture and the ways in which it is embedded with violence, and he confesses the sordid affair of his first-love with OxyContin addicted Trevor. All the while, Little Dog tries to find his place in his family, in America, and in the world, while remaining both hopeful and grateful for the imperfect love in his life.
From the novel’s opening in which Little Dog evokes Chinse poet Bei Dao in comparing freedom to the distance between the hunter and its prey, I was sucked in by its emotional depth and expressive language. This book is as beautiful and vivid as it is honest and devastating. At times, the string of hope that runs throughout the novel gets so thin that it is barely visible, but in its own subtle way, it always seems to bubble back toward the surface. This makes for an emotionally tumultuous read that is well worth it.
What I believe makes this novel so important is the way in which it addresses the immigrant experience in America. All the while, it employs evocative language to show the power of communication—which is largely taken away from Little Dog’s mother and grandmother. Through the cruelty of assumption born of the lack of communication, the book shows the way in which we all want to belong, and how America represents a collective sense of belonging that Little Dog desperately wishes to be tethered to in order to feel more legitimate. This novel speaks to all of our experiences as immigrants, maybe not from country to country, but on smaller scale, such as moving to a new school or starting a new job; it relates those experiences back into a basic shared human desire to belong.
Another interesting aspect of this novel is the way in which Vuong’s background in poetry influences the form of the novel. The letter Little Dog is writing to his mother is written in a series of vignettes that allow the reader to explore his memories in a way that feels unseated in time. At the same time, the distance between the narrator and the story he is telling is constantly fluctuating. In one scene, that lasts less than four pages, Little Dog imagines his mother taking the long walk home from work. In quick secession the reader learns about some of the layout of Hartford, Connecticut, Little Dog’s job and supervisor at the Boston Market, the origins of Trevor’s addiction to OxyContin, and Little Dog’s Grandmother’s memory of a girl killed in Vietnam while wearing sandals made of the burned rubber of a tire. Through all of this, Little Dog never forgets to return to speak directly to his mother to orient her both emotionally and on the streets that he imagines her traversing. I have to praise Vuong for his ability to make each word and each sentence have so much impact. It is a stunning feature of this novel and one that is likely to keep you hooked throughout its entirety.
At its core, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a novel that strives to both accept and celebrate the ways in which love enters our lives. Love, like all things, is imperfect, but that does not mean that we should not cherish it all the same. It is a vibrantly written emotional experience that will stick with you long after you have read the last page. It makes my required reading list for life, and I cannot recommend this book enough.