Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.Beloved by Toni Morrison
Published by The Folio Society on September, 1987 (Original)
Genres: Historical Fiction, Classic Literature
Pages: 304 (Hardcover)
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Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.
Beloved, like Shūsaku Endō’s Silence (discussed below), takes a black-and-white moral issue and douses it in reality, leaving readers with the uncomfortable task of distinguishing the resulting hues of murky grey. In this case, that issue is infanticide–the slaughter of a child’s body to save it from a soul-crushing life of bondage. Is such an act born of love or insanity? Or both? Is Beloved’s blood on her mother’s hands or does the burden of guilt lie with the white slavers who chained those hands against the wall? Beloved provides no easy answers. Instead, it calls readers to silence easy judgments and listen to the voices of the murdered and the murderer.
Beloved is undoubtedly a powerful book for many who read it, but for me, writing that seemed wispy, like the ghost of the story, muffled those voices. This stylistic choice may be fitting, but it also made me muddle-headed, and I found myself groping and stumbling my way through the novel. I wonder if my expectations were too high, or if it’s just a bad fit for me. Either way, with the exception of a few short passages that lit the way, I felt tired and lost.
As a side note, I read the Folio Society edition, which I received for review a couple of years ago. The illustrations (by Joe Morse) are beautiful. If Beloved is one of your favorite books, I highly recommend it.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Narrator: John Lee
Published by Blackstone Audio on 1967 (Original)
Genres: Classic Literature, Magical Realism
Length: 14 hr. 4 min. (Audiobook)
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One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the story of the rise and fall of the mythical town of Macondo through the history of its founding family. It is a chronicle of life and death, and the tragicomedy of humankind. In the story of the family, one sees all of humanity, just as in the history, myths, growth, and decay of Macondo, one sees all of Latin America.
One Hundred Years of Solitude is a multi-generational epic that pays uncanny attention to the absurd details of everyday life. In this way, it is as contrary as its many characters, most of whom are–at minimum–slightly insane. In addition to the usual epic fair–coupes and executions, love affairs and family secrets–the book regularly chronicles such mundane activities as pissing in the bushes, keeping the house free of pests, and chaining the mentally unstable town patriarch to a chestnut tree. Well, maybe that last one isn’t so mundane, but once you spend a few hours in the fictional town of Macondo, it may begin to seem that way.
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One Hundred Years of Solitude is a classic example of magical realism–the unreal woven into the real with such finesse that distinguishing between the two takes effort. The town of Macondo is probably a metaphor, though without a working knowledge of the political and social climate it reflects (something I will endeavor to correct when I have the time), I can’t possibly discern its hidden parallels. So, judging it through a narrow 21st century American lens, I can tell you these five things:
- One Hundred Years of Solitude is interminably long. Or, at least, it feels that way. This is probably true of most epics, but I admit, my mind wandered and my patience grew thin at times.
- Half of the characters have the names José Arcadio, Remedios, or Aureliano somebody. I’d be lying if I said keeping them straight is easy.
- The plot is exceptionally tidy. Márquez packaged it in a beginning and end that leave nothing to the imagination, yet satisfy in the way a task list does when all the boxes are neatly checked off.
- The writing is beautiful in a stately sort of way, fitting for the scope of the book. John Lee narrates the audiobook in an equally stately fashion, almost as if he were an announcer in a royal court.
- I am fonder of the book in hindsight than I was while actually listening to it.
If I were to judge One Hundred Years of Solitude purely by its literary verve and value, I would give it five stars. As it is, I am balancing Márquez’s obvious talent with my ability to stay awake through the boring bits.
Silence by Shūsaku Endō
Published by Picador on 1966 (Original)
Genres: Historical Fiction, Christian Fiction
Pages: 240 (Paperback)
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Seventeenth-century Japan: Two Portuguese Jesuit Priests travel to a country hostile to their religion, where feudal lords force the faithful to publicly renounce their beliefs. Eventually captured and forced to watch their Japanese Christian brothers lay down their lives for their faith, the priests bear witness to the unimaginable cruelties that test their own beliefs.
If you had to publicly renounce your faith or allow innocent people to die horrible, painful deaths, which would you choose? This is the moral quandary posed by Endō’s Silence, a twentieth-century classic that uses Japanese-Christian history as a vehicle to grapple with the tension between private faith and public testimony, and the silence of God in the face of suffering.
Earlier this summer I requested a review copy of Silence and Beauty, a reflection on Silence by acclaimed visual artist Makoto Fujimura. I had never read Endō’s work, but I knew that this particular novel is in the process of adaptation for the big screen by director Martin Scorsese. I thought it would be rewarding to read the two books back-to-back before the movie hits theaters in November. I have yet to read Silence and Beauty, so my thoughts on Silence at this point are raw and unseasoned by outside sources.
It’s not hard to understand why Silence is a twentieth-century classic. In addition to the sticky issue of apostasy under pressure, Endō explores the role of Judas in the gospel narrative through the fearful Kichijirō, who betrays the novel’s protagonist, Father Rodrigues, to the authorities, only to later beg to join him in prison. Endō never shies from the difficult questions raised by the seeming inevitability of his Judas’ betrayal or his suicidal regret in the aftermath.
I feel that to reveal Endō’s conclusions regarding these issues would spoil the book. The story is both an intellectual and emotional journey, and the reader must arrive at his or her own conclusions naturally. Suffice to say that Silence is a brilliant piece of classic Christian literature that is as challenging as it is comforting.
Have you read any of these books? What did you think?