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I Just Read: Beloved

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 stars

Note: This is a spoiler-free review

Beloved, by Toni Morrison, is a fantastical, historical fictional novel that was published in 1987. Beloved tells the story of former African-American slave Sethe. Set after the American Civil War, Sethe managed to escape from the clutches of Sweet Home, a beautiful yet horrifying plantation settlement in Kentucky. Yet, even after 18 years of freedom in Ohio, even after spending each moment of freedom with her 18-year-old daughter, Denver, Sethe cannot seem to escape the horrors of her past. From being reunited with another former slave from Sweet Home, Paul D, to being haunted (in more ways than one) by the ghosts of her past when someone she thought long dead, walks right back into Sethe and Denver’s lives.

As usual, it seems, this was another book that I read for American Literature, as apart of our Southern Gothic unit; however, it’s one that I almost instantly feel in love with. From the rich language, to the fully realized characters, to the vivid settings, to the dark and haunting images and themes the book tackles, all of it makes for a beautiful and immersive reading experience.

This was one book that I was actually glad to have read in a literature class because we could talk about the plot and I could clear up certain story beats that I missed. While the language is very, very rich and poetic, Morrison’s writing style does take some getting used to. She could have these long, poetic, vivid sentences, but buried deep within one of those sentences is a very important plot point that I (more often will not) will miss. So while I appreciate how the language sucks you in, it’s also very complicated to read. It defiantly took at least 50 pages into before I started getting used to the language. It’s definitely one, if your like me, to read with others to discuss plot points, the timeline of certain events, and what certain passages imply.

Another feature of Morrison’s writing is how she jumps around in time. One part of a chapter will be Sethe and Denver talking in the present, and then merely a paragraph later, we will jump to Sethe in the past, escaping from Sweet Home. Again, this is a feature that confused me in the first 50 pages, and while it can get tricky to keep track of where we are, I did get used to it. In fact, that’s one of the books greatest strengths. The way that Morrison reveals information about the characters and their past kept me engaged through the whole story. Rather than revealing an entire character’s backstory in one chapter, little by little she would reveal more and more about the characters (mostly Paul D, Sethe, and Baby Suggs) and their past. The information was never forced either, as the jumping around in time kept me completely immersed in the narrative, as the three characters I mentioned earlier have very dense backstories. It was much more engaging for me to have each character reveal their past little by little rather than just being told how they ended up where they are in an entire chapter.

Paul D (Danny Glover) protects Sethe (Oprah Winfrey) in the 1998 film adaptation of Beloved (dir. by Jonathan Demme.)

I also think that Morrison approached the characterizations very interestingly. When I discussed the book with my classmates, I found that early on in the story, we had very different opinions on the characters. None of the main characters, even until the very end, seem entirely good or entirely evil. Despite some of these characters being victims of slavery, terrible abuses, and great tragedies, we aren’t always sure how to feel about them. We want to feel sympathetic towards them, but at the same time they themselves have done some dark things in the past. Sethe,and Paul D, to be more specific, both have lost people they were close to and endured unimaginable trauma to escape slavery, have also done or said terrible things. Even Denver, who appears quite stubborn and resistant to change at first, does have a good reason to hold onto the past. This create characters- and an experience- that appears all too human.

The final thing I wish to talk about is the fantastical aspect of the story. Without giving too much away, this book does create a fine line between ghosts and other fantastical happenings, and 19th century America. All of this does, however, come together beautifully to create a very dynamic reading experience all revolving around the past and how- in more ways than one- it could come back to haunt you. The final story, as a result, is both tragic (as Morrison does not shy away from the horrors of slavery) while also providing a ray of hope that, while the past is inescapable, there is a way to move forward.

If I didn’t make it clear already- I loved Beloved. While it is a tricky read, I think the rich language, tragic and all too human characters, immersive historical setting, time period, and delicate blending of the fantasy and the reality, makes for a very memorable reading experience. If you think you could handle some of the darker and more violent themes and images, and don’t mind books with denser language, this is one I would definitely check out.

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I Just Read: The Catcher in the Rye

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐☆☆

This is another book – just like The Great Gatsby– that I read for a school assignment, but I’d still like to give my own thoughts and perspective on the writing, characters, and so forth.

This review contains very mild spoilers

To give a brief synopsis, The Catcher in the Rye, written by J.D. Salinger and published in 1951, follows 17-year old Holden Claufield as he is (once again) expelled, this time from an extremely expensive boarding school due to his poor work ethic. Although he is asked to not return after Christmas break, he decides to leave a few days early. Fearful of his mother and father’s reaction after they find out he was expelled, he decides to spend the next few days before the start of Christmas Break in New York City before going home. The rest of the story follows Holden as he journeys from place to place in the city and comes across faces new and old, all the while becoming more estranged and bitter of society.

In my English class, one thing we discussed was how J.D. Salinger was well known for pioneering, or at least popularizing, this stream of consciousness style of writing. The story takes place from a first person perspective, and we as the readers are very much immersed into Holden thoughts, which often diverged considerably from the main plot. Often times Holden will go off on a tangent about something that will ultimately lead to an entirely different tangent about a different subject. I think whether or not you can get into this writing style depends on your tastes. On the one hand, it does get a little frustrating, especially if what he’s talking about distracts from the action or adds little in the way of the narrative. While it did frustrate me at times, especially when I just wanted to get back to the action, a lot of what he did ramble on about, at least the way I saw it, added to his character and gave me some more insight on who he his.

I think what J.D Salinger did which really aided itself to this stream of consciousness narrative is that he kept the plot to a minimum. Nothing of great magnitude really happens in the story, we just follow Holden as he travels around the city and interacts with different people. This gave way for more distractions from the main action since there really isn’t much plotting to begin with. The story, in fact, feels like a little slice of life narrative, albeit it bit more unique than just an everyday occurrence for Holden. There is still the challenge of Holden grappling with his ever growing bitterness for the world and society. Even the new “moral” that he learns by the end of the story is very subtle in how it is conveyed, and it’s not even really too clear if he will follow through with that newfound view of life.

“The Catcher in the Rye” author, J.D. Salinger (1919-2010).

From my class discussions, one of biggest complaints, besides the stream of consciousness style narrative, was with Holden himself. On the one hand, I don’t think he’s a very likable character. Even though he is a jerk I think that we are still supposed to root for him, but I more often than not found myself more frustrated with him. However, the strange thing is the reasons why I don’t like Holden are also the reasons why I relate to him the most: he’s a teenager. He’s hypocritical, he’s bitter towards society, he complains and actively calls out other people for being “phony,” and he has more than a few stints of depression. So while I don’t actively like Holden, he does feel like a genuinely real teenager. If that’s what Salinger’s intent was (to make Holden feel real as opposed to likable) he nailed it.

Because the story was being told from a biased point of view, it was very hard to get a grasp on the various supporting characters; however, I will say that I found Holden’s sister, Phoebe, to be my personal favorite character. I thought her young, sassy attitude was a great addition to the story and a great contrast to Holden’s attitude. This brings me to probably my favorite thing that the book tackles: it’s themes. I won’t give what they are, but it’s done so subtly that if I was not analyzing this book in an English class, I think I would have glossed over them completely. The themes that the book presents are very compelling, and while some might think that the ending is a bit dissatisfying, I rather like how the story is kept open ended on what Holden will chose to do. Something else I enjoyed about the book is that it solemn just tells you how things affect or have affected Holden. There are a couple of heavy hitting moments that one would think Holden would go more into, but he doesn’t. Either Salinger wanted the reader to contemplate themselves how they think those traumatic moments have affected Holden, or maybe because, at the time, those social issues were never even brought up in novels before.

Overall, I think this is one book that I actively enjoyed more because I was able to discuss and analyze it in English class, so I was able to identity and appreciate a lot of the deeper themes and character moments. The book and Holden did actively frustrate me, but I also believe that was Salinger’s intent from the start. I think whether or not you will enjoy this narrative style and a character like Holden depends on your taste, but I would still recommend checking it out. I am glad I read it, but I can’t say I actively enjoyed it as much as, say, The Great Gatsby.