1. My god, will we ever stop talking about the 25 best books since Sam Tanenhaus lost his virginity? No, apparently we won’t. A few weeks ago I mentioned that I had never read the top title on the list, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and I pledged to read it and report my findings.
The results are in, and I have no choice but to say this straight out: Beloved is indeed something very special, and I can hardly argue with its position on this list. In fact, it’s such a good book I feel embarrassed to have never read it before. Where the hell was I?
Well, Beloved was published in 1987, five years after Alice Walker’s similar The Color Purple. I liked The Color Purple very much, and I guess I had some conception of Toni Morrison as a tamer, less gritty Alice Walker. I was wrong. The Color Purple and Beloved have many similarities — they both feature a sexually abused heroine, an elder female wisdom figure and a whole lot of useless men — but Toni Morrison’s book is by far the richer, more symbolic and more carefully wrought fictional experience. I am simply blown away by some of the author’s touches — the tree on Sethe’s back, the butter on Halle’s face. The book sustains a hellish pitch with scene after scene of social anarchy and sexual humiliation, and in parts the book nearly boils over with anger. It’s incredible that I once thought Toni Morrison lacked grit.
I’m now backfilling my knowledge of this book, which was apparently based on the horribly sad true story of Margaret Garner. I just rented the DVD of the 1998 movie version, which stars Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover and was directed by Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs). I found the movie very effective in parts, and only slightly disappointing in its literal depiction of the ghost that haunts the house at 124 Bluestone Road (I prefer to wonder what the apparitions would have looked like). I’m not surprised that the movie wasn’t a big hit (it’s no feel-good tale) but I do think it’s worth watching as a supplement to the book.
I know that Cynthia Ozick recently disparaged this novel in a panel discussion about the Top 25 List. I honestly find her comments inexplicable, especially since Ozick’s The Shawl has much in common with Morrison’s book.
And, even though I continue to feel strong overall contempt for the New York Times’ much, much too blogged about Top 25 List, I am awarding a single match point to Mr. Tanenhaus. His list got me to read a book I should have read long ago.
But please don’t get any ideas that you’re going to catch me with a wheelbarrow full of late-period Philip Roth novels next. That’s just not going to happen.
2. I’m looking forward to a John Updike appearance at the New York Public Library this June 15. I like this writer very much, and I’ll be very interested in reading his new Terrorist, which Charles McGrath discusses in today’s New York Times.
Also, Lev Grossman asks Updike some questions in this week’s Time Magazine, though his interview falls unfortunately limp. Updike is too cagey for pokey questions like these; I don’t feel anywhere close to a revelation. And Lev Grossman (who I used to work with, by the way, and who is a swell guy though a tame critic) slips up when he describes Updike’s 1968 novel Couples as “still shocking”, which reveals the fact that Lev Grossman has never read Couples and shouldn’t be trying to talk about it. Couples is a great Updike book (I’ll trade you four and a half Rabbits for this book), but it’s salacious rather than shocking. The lead character thinks about architecture and religion a lot, and most of the action between the eponymous married couples involves mixing Tom Collins’s around a patio table or sneaking furtive kisses in a hallway. PG-13 at best, but no less a great book for it.