Tuesday, February 11, 2020

100th BOOK REVIEW! (God Help the Child + Jazz)

Since this is my first blog post of 2020, let me take a moment to wish you all a Happy New Year and a Happy Black History Month at the same time! Can't believe I haven't written on here since November, and now it's February. I took a hiatus from my podcast in mid-November, and I guess that unintentionally translated into me taking a break from this blog too. I was just trying to enjoy my time, and enjoy reading instead of pushing myself to write about it. But now I'm back! And it feels good.

Part of why it feels so good is because this is my 100th book review! 100th! I know, right? Almost as soon as I heard about Toni Morrison's passing on August 5th, 2019, I knew I wanted to use this personal milestone of mine to honor her by writing about two of her books that I've been holding onto for a while. And what a blessing it was for me to learn, once I cracked them open, that each one happened to be published during a pivotal year in my life. God Help the Child, which I bought during my time as a bookstore employee, was published the same year that I graduated from college (2015). Jazz, which I found at a local book sale at a mall last year, was published the same year that I was born (1992).

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

Lula Ann is born in the 1990s with extraordinarily dark skin, which her light-skinned parents react to with shock, shame, and disgust. Her skin color is so unacceptable to them that her father deserts the family, and her mother avoids touching her as much as possible while insisting that Lula Ann call her "Sweetness" instead of "Mother" or "Mama." It's no wonder that Lula Ann grows up feeling that there is something wrong with her, and that she has to follow a certain set of rules to not only earn her mother's approval, but also make it in a world that prioritizes whiteness. An adult, Lula Ann is estranged from Sweetness and is a successful cosmetics executive who goes by the name "Bride." She has learned to dress and carry herself in a way that frames her dark skin as a mesmerizing asset to her beauty, but to a certain extent this confidence is her way of overcompensating for lingering insecurities.

Bride's relationships with men have all been unsuccessful until she meets Booker, the first man who makes her feel comfortable enough to discuss a traumatic event that she's kept secret for decades. He responds to her revelation with loving reassurance and encouragement, but later on, Booker suddenly walks out of her life. What follows is a series of painful setbacks for Bride. She falls into a post-breakup depression, she goes to visit a former elementary school teacher of hers who reacts by beating her to a pulp, she's put on leave from her job, and her ill-advised quest to find Booker and make him answer for his disappearance results in her getting into a car accident. During these trials, she has no one to support her except her supposed best friend Brooklyn, a white woman with locs who fetishizes Black men and uses Bride's misfortune to swoop in and take Bride's job. Which is to say, Bride really has no support at all. While recovering from the car accident and living off the grid in the company of strangers, Bride's got nothing but time to reflect on what she's gone through and all the love that's been denied her by so many people throughout her life. Can Bride be happy again and finally be at peace with herself? Will she get the answers she seeks from Booker? I'll let y'all read the novel to find out.

Most of this novel is written from Bride's perspective, but Sweetness, Brooklyn, Bride's former teacher Sofia, Booker, and even a little white girl named Rain also chime in about their own lives and their connections to Bride. Each of these characters has experienced abuse or neglect as children, or has been heavily impacted by the mistreatment they witnessed other children endure. So the title God Help the Child applies to all of them in some way, because they know intimately the various ways that children can be harmed, rejected, and unprotected in this world. I didn't realize until the end that this novel is also a love story. I had an idea of where the book was going—especially given the issue of colorism that the book opens with, and all the violence that Bride experiences—and "love story" was certainly not it. But as much as I hadn't anticipated it, the ending is a happy and hopeful one, especially for Bride and Booker. Overall, I enjoyed this novel for what it was. And as far as Toni Morrison books go, God Help the Child is relatively short and easy to get through. If you have any connection to child abuse and won't be too triggered reading about it, if you haven't had much luck in relationships, if you've struggled with not being accepted because of how you look, or if you've ever wondered what boss women might struggle with behind the scenes, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I don't think many people appreciate silence or realize that it is as close to music as you can get. Quiet makes some folks fidget or feel too lonely. After fifteen years of noise I was hungry for silence more than food" (69). 

"What have you learned that is true (and how do you know)?" (112).

"Had he lived, grown up to have flaws, human failings like deception, foolishness and ignorance, would he be so easy to adore or be even worthy of adoration? What kind of love is it that requires an angel and only an angel for its commitment?" (160).

Jazz by Toni Morrison

Jazz... my, my, my. I found this book to be quite challenging, but I will do my best to explain what it's about. Harlem, 1926: Violet Trace (a hairdresser) is dealing with the fallout of her husband Joe's affair. This affair with a teenaged girl named Dorcas has ended with Joe (a 50-year-old salesman) stalking and killing Dorcas, and Violet attempting to stab Dorcas's body at the funeral. To sum Violet and her husband's relationship up, it's a mess. And while Joe is crying for months and months over what he did and no one holds him accountable for murdering that girl, Violet is left to pick up the pieces. She receives the brunt of her neighbors' judgment for acting out at the funeral and being mentally ill, and she's the one who must decide how to move forward within her marriage and household. Trying to understand more about the kind of person Dorcas was, Violet begins visiting her neighbor Alice, the aunt and mother figure whom Dorcas lived with. 

(Side note: Jazz has shown me that people on the internet really don't be reading or checking for context like that, and sometimes I am one of those people. Imagine how shocked and silly I felt realizing that the ever-so-romantic Toni Morrison quote, "I didn't fall in love, I rose in it," which I've seen shared countless times on social media, comes from Joe! Joe, of all people! Defending his obsession with Dorcas, after he's already murdered her because he couldn't handle losing the way she made him feel! Lord have mercy. Moving on.)

Set in the 1920s but reaching as far back as before the Civil War, Jazz traces the various historical and familial events that led so many Black people north, and to Harlem specifically, during the Great Migration. Violet's mother and grandmother were born enslaved, and both Violet and Joe only know country life and agricultural labor until they leave Virginia to move to "the City" in 1906. Dorcas is originally from southern Illinois, until the East St. Louis massacre of 1917 leaves her orphaned and has her living in New York with her aunt Alice. I've read about the Great Migration in other literature written by Black authors before; August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson come to mind, as do Paule Marshall's The Fisher King, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing. But in Jazz, Toni Morrison emphasizes the vastness and the complications of this phenomenon in a way that I hadn't considered before. And out of all possible destinations at that time, many Black people were attracted to Harlem as a place where they could be "free" to live as they wanted, where they could be surrounded by other Black people who were also "free", and where Black people could be the face of establishments that they themselves owned. Morrison's description of Harlem and its importance remind me so much of Touré's The Portable Promised Land, which practically sings Harlem's praises for similar reasons.

But back to Violet and Joe. Now that I'm reflecting on it, not much happens in the "present" of Jazz. Violet and Joe initially drift apart, Joe seeks comfort in the arms of Dorcas (whom he meets by chance), Joe and Dorcas have an affair, Joe shoots Dorcas, and everyone in their apartment building and neighborhood tries to make sense of what happened. Rather than linear plot movement, it's the lived experiences of the main characters, and what has led them to their current reality, that are given the most attention. If you want a nuanced and intimate feel for what the Great Migration was about, why Harlem mattered and still matters so much, and how certain Black people lived day-to-day from the 1800s to 1926, with references to how Black music and Black life inform each other, then this is the novel for you. If you're looking for a story about a torrid love triangle and the fiery vengeance of a woman scorned (which I wasn't), then you might be a little disappointed. The ending did leave me scratching my head slightly, and I'm still not certain who the omniscient unnamed narrator is supposed to be. But as a whole I learned so much from Jazz, and believe that I'm better off for having read it. You probably will be too.

Favorite quotes:

"Advice too: 'Don't let this whip you, Rose. You got us, Rose Dear. Think of the young ones, Rose. He ain't give you nothing you can't bear, Rose.' But had He? Maybe this one time He had. Had misjudged and misunderstood her particular backbone. This one time. This here particular spine" (99).

"But what they felt was better. Not beaten, not lost. Better. They laughed too, even Rose Dear shook her head and smiled, and suddenly the world was right side up. Violet learned then what she had forgotten until this moment: that laughter is serious. More complicated, more serious than tears" (113).

"...and don't bring me no whiteboy sass" (173).

"The way she said it. Not like the 'me' was some tough somebody, or somebody she had put together for show. But like, like somebody she favored and could count on. A secret somebody you didn't have to feel sorry for or have to fight for" (210).

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