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8 Toni Morrison Books Everyone Should Read

SULA

In a neighborhood where pain—"adult pain that rested somewhere under the eyelids"—is as pervasively omnipresent as the loveliness of May's green shade trees, death and its omens can be accepted as another face of God. But in the closed black community of the high hill overlooking a white Ohio town, there are two who stand outside the defensive webs of familial interdependence. There is mad Shadrach, victim of World War I, who defies death's capricious obscenity by ringing his bell for National Suicide Day every year—and one year he has some takers. And Sula, who will die, not like "other colored girls" rotting like a stump, but falling "like a redwood." For she is the product of a "household of throbbing disorder" and had learned isolation and the "meaningless of responsibility" early when she accidentally caused the drowning of a little boy. Intemperate, restless, Sula had some of the arrogance of her one-legged grandmother Eva. It was Eva who had long ago pondered the meaning of love when she used her only food (lard scrapings) to cure her baby boy's bellyache; yet when her son was a man, regressing to the womb of drugs, she burnt him to death. Sula also watched her mother die in flames, conscious only that she wanted the dying dance to go on. She left the village and returns to become the community's unifying evil—but will the people eventually love one who stood against the sky? Miss Morrison, author of The Bluest Eye (1970), in her deceptively gentle narrative, her dialogue that virtually speaks from the page, and her multilayered perceptions drawn through the needle's eye of any consciousness she creates, is undoubtedly a major and formidable talent, and this is an impressive second novel.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1973

ISBN: 0375415351

Page Count: 174

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1973

The gut-soul of Roots, with which this will be recklessly, inevitably linked, and a handsome display of a major talent.

SONG OF SOLOMON

"When you know your name, you should hang on to it, for unless it is noted down and remembered, it will die when you die."

And the scribbled no-name "Macon Dead," given to a newly freed black man by a drunken Union Army officer, has stained out a family's real name for three generations, and then we meet the third "Macon Dead," called "Milkman." Raised among the sour hatreds of the richest black family in a Michigan town, Milkman learns not to love or make commitments, learns to turn away from his father's hard, tight greed, his mother's unloved passivity, his sisters' sterile virginity. He stands apart from his outcast aunt Pilate (a figure reminiscent of Sula, living beyond all reason), a "raggedy bootlegger" who keeps her name in a box threaded to one ear. And he stands above the wild untidy adoration of his cousin Hagar, above the atrocities against blacks in the 1950s, even while his friend organizes a black execution squad. However, when Milkman's father opens the door to a family past of murder and flight, Milkman—in order to steal what he believes is gold—begins the cleansing Odyssean journey. His wanderings will take him through a wilderness of rich and wonderful landscapes murmuring with old tales, those real names becoming closer and more familiar. He beholds eerie appearances (an ancient Circe ringed with fight-eyed dogs)—and hears the electric singing of children, which holds within it the pulse of truth. Like other black Americans, Milkman's retrieval of identity from obliteration helps him to shake off the "Dead" no-name state of his forebears. And, like all people, his examination of the past gives him a perspective that liberates the capacity for love. Morrison's narration, accomplished with such patient delicacy, is both darkly tense and exuberant; fantastic events and symbolic embellishments simply extend and deepen the validity and grace of speech and character.

The gut-soul of Roots, with which this will be recklessly, inevitably linked, and a handsome display of a major talent.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1977

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 360

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1977

Scouring contemporary insights—in prose as lithe and potent as vines in a rain forest.

TAR BABY

Morrison's fine-tuned, high-strung characters this time—black and white Americans caught up together in a "wide and breezy" house on a Caribbean island—may lack the psychic wingspread of Sula or Milkman of Song of Solomon. Yet within the swift of her dazzlingly mythic/animistic fancies, and dialogue sharp as drum raps, they carry her speculations—about black and white relationships and black female identity—as lightly as racing silks. Slim, trim, coolly witty Valerian Street, a retired white Philadelphia candy manufacturer partnered by querulous second wife Margaret (once "Maine's Principal Beauty"), is the wily Prospero for his household of obligated attendants. The strange musics of the island, however, are heard better by the natives—like near-blind Theresa, who knows the island's slave legends. Somewhere in between are Valerian's excellent, elderly black retainers: butler Sidney, starched by his old pride in being "one of the industrious Philadelphia Negroes"; and his wife, Ondine the cook, who nurses swollen feet and curses the Principal Beauty. And the crown of Sidney and Ondine's lives is their stunning niece Jade, to whom Sidney serves food immaculately on silver trays as she dines with Valerian (who financed her superior education abroad). But this delicate assortment of nervous dependencies begins to shiver with the shattering arrival of Son, an unkempt American black man on the run, one of the "undocumented." Valerian, amused by the horror of the household, invites Son as a guest; once cleaned and beautiful, Son begins his courtship of Jade, a woman fearful of a devouring sexuality and a black affirmation. And then, at Christmas dinner, the six of this unlikely peaceable kingdom sit down together only to writhe in a lavaslide of raw, inter-locked revelation and ancient rage. Result: Jade and Son flee to the States, where she—an educated, restless city woman—has a future, while he has only a past: woman-cosseted, woman-dominating. She says: "Mama-spoiled black man, will you mature with me?" He says: "Culture-bearing black woman, whose culture are you bearing?" They try to rescue each other, but their lives cannot mesh: Jade will be a worker, a neuter, rejecting nurturing and heading for Paris; grieving Son will be led by Theresa to a ghostly liberation.

Scouring contemporary insights—in prose as lithe and potent as vines in a rain forest.

Pub Date: March 12, 1981

ISBN: 978-0-394-42329-6

Page Count: 332

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1981

JAZZ

Morrison, in her sixth novel, enters 1926 Harlem, a new black world then ("safe from fays [whites] and the things they think up"), and moves into a love story—with a love that could clear a space from the past, give a life or take one. At 50, Joe Trace—good-looking, faithful to wife Violet, also from Virginia poortimes—suddenly tripped into a passionate affair with Dorcas, 18: "one of those deep-down spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going." Then Violet went to Dorcas's funeral and cut her dead face. But before Joe met Dorcas, and before her death and before Violet, in her torn coat, scoured the neighborhood looking for reasons, looking for her own truer identity, images of the past burned within all three: Violet's mother, tipped out of her chair by the men who took everything away, and her death in a well; for Joe, the hand of the "wild" woman, his mother, that never really found his. And all of the child Dorcas's dolls burned up with her mother and her childhood. Truly, the new music of Harlem—from clicks and taps of pleasure to the thud of betrayed marching black veterans with their frozen faces—"had a complicated anger in it." Were Joe and Violet substitutes for each other, for a need known and unmet? At the close, a new link is forged between them with another Dorcas. One of Morrison's richest novels yet, with its weave of city voices, tough and tender, public and private, and a flight of images that sweep up the world in a heartbeat: the narrator (never identified) contemplates airships in a city sky as they "swim below cloud foam...like watching a private dream....That was what [Dorcas's] hunger was like: mesmerizing, directed, floating like a public secret." In all, a lovely novel—lyrical, searching, and touching.

Pub Date: April 21, 1992

ISBN: 0-679-41167-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1992

Morrison traces the shifting shapes of suffering and mythic accommodations, through the shell of psychosis to the core of a...

BELOVED

Morrison's truly majestic fifth novel—strong and intricate in craft; devastating in impact.

Set in post-Civil War Ohio, this is the story of how former slaves, psychically crippled by years of outrage to their bodies and their humanity, attempt to "beat hack the past," while the ghosts and wounds of that past ravage the present. The Ohio house where Sethe and her second daughter, 10-year-old Denver, live in 1873 is "spiteful. Full of a [dead] baby's venom." Sethe's mother-in-law, a good woman who preached freedom to slave minds, has died grieving. It was she who nursed Sethe, the runaway—near death with a newborn—and gave her a brief spell of contentment when Sethe was reunited with her two boys and first baby daughter. But the boys have by now run off, scared, and the murdered first daughter "has palsied the house" with rage. Then to the possessed house comes Paul D., one of the "Pauls" who, along with Sethe, had been a slave on the "Sweet Home" plantation under two owners—one "enlightened," one vicious. (But was there much difference between them?) Sethe will honor Paul D.'s humiliated manhood; Paul D. will banish Sethe's ghost, and hear her stories from the past. But the one story she does not tell him will later drive him away—as it drove away her boys, and as it drove away the neighbors. Before he leaves, Paul D. will be baffled and anxious about Sethe's devotion to the strange, scattered and beautiful lost girl, "Beloved." Then, isolated and alone together for years, the three women will cling to one another as mother, daughter, and sister—found at last and redeemed. Finally, the ex-slave community, rebuilding on ashes, will intervene, and Beloved's tortured vision of a mother's love—refracted through a short nightmare life—will end with her death.

Morrison traces the shifting shapes of suffering and mythic accommodations, through the shell of psychosis to the core of a victim's dark violence, with a lyrical insistence and a clear sense of the time when a beleaguered peoples' "only grace...was the grace they could imagine."

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1987

ISBN: 9781400033416

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1987

A chilling oracle and a lively storyteller, Nobel winner Morrison continues the work she began 45 years ago with The Bluest...

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GOD HELP THE CHILD

Brutality, racism and lies are relieved by moments of connection in Morrison's latest.

A little girl is born with skin so black her mother will not touch her. Desperate for approval, to just once have her mother take her hand, she tells a lie that puts an innocent schoolteacher in jail for decades. Later, the ebony-skinned girl will change her name to Bride, wear only white, become a cosmetics entrepreneur, drive a Jaguar. Her lover, a man named Booker, also bears a deep scar on his soul—his older brother was abducted, tortured and murdered by a pedophilic serial killer. This is a skinny, fast-moving novel filled with tragic incidents, most sketched in a few haunting sentences: "The last time Booker saw Adam he was skateboarding down the sidewalk in twilight, his yellow T-shirt fluorescent under the Northern Ash trees." When Bride's falsely accused teacher is released from prison, there's a new round of trouble. Booker leaves, Bride goes after him—and ends up in the woods, recovering from a car accident with hippie survivalists who have adopted a young girl abused by her prostitute mother. Meanwhile, Bride is anxiously watching her own body metamorphose into that of a child—her pubic hair has vanished, her chest has flattened, her earlobes are smooth. As in the darkest fairy tales, there will be fire and death. There will also be lobster salad, Smartwater and Louis Vuitton; the mythic aspects of this novel are balanced by moments like the one in which Bride decides that the song that most represents her relationship with Booker is "I Wanna Dance with Somebody."

A chilling oracle and a lively storyteller, Nobel winner Morrison continues the work she began 45 years ago with The Bluest Eye.

Pub Date: April 21, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-307-59417-4

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 7, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2015

As sharp and insightful as one would expect from this acclaimed author.

THE ORIGIN OF OTHERS

Essays focused on an overarching question: “What is race (other than genetic imagination), and why does it matter?”

Melding memoir, history, and trenchant literary analysis, Nobel Prize laureate Morrison (Emeritus, Humanities/Princeton Univ.; God Help the Child, 2015, etc.) offers perceptive reflections on the configuration of Otherness. Revised from her Norton Lectures at Harvard, the volume consists of six essays that consider how race is conceived, internalized, and culturally transmitted, drawing in part on writers such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Joseph Conrad, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the African writer Camara Laye, whose novel The Radiance of the King Morrison greatly admires. Laye told the story of a white man, stranded and destitute in Africa, struggling to maintain his assumptions of white privilege. For Morrison, the novel illuminates the pressures that “make us deny the foreigner in ourselves and make us resist to the death the commonness of humanity.” She also offers insightful glosses into her own aims as a novelist. “Narrative fiction,” she writes, “provides a controlled wilderness, an opportunity to be and to become the Other. The stranger. With sympathy, clarity, and the risk of self-examination.” In Beloved, for example, she reimagined the story of Margaret Garner, a slave who had killed her children rather than see them enslaved, as she had been. In A Mercy, she examined “the journey from sympathetic race relations to violent ones fostered by religion.” In Paradise, she delved into the issue of hierarchies of blackness by looking at “the contradictory results of devising a purely raced community”; she purposely did not identify her characters’ race in order to “simultaneously de-fang and theatricalize race, signaling, I hoped, how moveable and hopelessly meaningless the construct was.” In God Help the Child, Morrison considered “the triumphalism and deception that colorism fosters.” Her current novel in progress, she discloses, explores “the education of a racist—how does one move from a non-racial womb to the womb of racism”?

As sharp and insightful as one would expect from this acclaimed author.

Pub Date: Sept. 18, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-674-97645-0

Page Count: 116

Publisher: Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: June 5, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2017

Powerful, highly compelling pieces from one of our greatest writers.

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THE SOURCE OF SELF-REGARD

SELECTED ESSAYS, SPEECHES, AND MEDITATIONS

Brilliantly incisive essays, speeches, and meditations considering race, power, identity, and art.

A prominent public intellectual even before being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, novelist Morrison (Emerita, Humanities/Princeton Univ.; The Origin of Others, 2017, etc.) has lectured and written about urgent social and cultural matters for more than four decades. Her latest collection gathers more than 40 pieces (including her Nobel lecture), revealing the passion, compassion, and profound humanity that distinguish her writing. Freedom, dignity, and responsibility recur as salient issues. Speaking to the Sarah Lawrence graduating class in 1988, Morrison urges her listeners to go beyond “an intelligent encounter with problem-solving” to engage in dreaming. “Not the activity of the sleeping brain, but rather the activity of a wakened, alert one” that can foster empathy—a sense of intimacy that “should precede our decision-making, our cause-mongering, our action.” To graduates of Barnard in 1979 she recasts the fairy tale of "Cinderella," focusing on the women who exploit and oppress the heroine, to urge her audience to “pay as much attention to our nurturing sensibilities as to our ambition.” “In wielding the power that is deservedly yours,” she adds, “don’t permit it to enslave your stepsisters.” In an adroit—and chillingly prescient—political critique published in the Nation in 1995, she warns of the complicity between racism and fascism, perceiving a culture where fear, denial, and complacency prevail and where “our intelligence [is] sloganized, our strength downsized, our privacy auctioned.” “Fascism talks ideology,” she writes, “but it is really just marketing—marketing for power.” Speaking at Princeton in 1998, she considers the linguistic and moral challenges she faced in writing Paradise, one of many pieces offering insights into her fiction. Aiming to produce “race-specific race-free prose,” she confronted the problem of writing about personal identity “in a language in which the codes of racial hierarchy and disdain are deeply embedded”—as well as the problem of writing about the intellectually complex idea of paradise “in an age of theme parks.”

Powerful, highly compelling pieces from one of our greatest writers.

Pub Date: Feb. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-52103-7

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 7, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

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