Books that changed me: Sula by Toni Morrison

classic books on shelf

Are you a re-reader? I don’t think of myself as one, but  along with my book club, I’ve re-read a few classic books: To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, and The Great Gatsby. We plan to read more.

After recently writing about five novels that changed me, I decided to embark on a new, more personal re-reading project. I’m re-visiting books that mattered deeply to me in my childhood, adolescence or young adult life but might not be quite so well known and/or universally loved. (In other words, books I might not be able to convince my book club to read along with me.) I’m calling this project Books that Changed Me.

When picking a list of  books that changed me, Sula, by Toni Morrison was at the top of my list, but when I tried to recall details, I realized how little I recalled of the plot. I only remembered how I felt transformed when I read it as assigned high school summer reading, circa 1987. Sula would never have made it into my hands without a nudge from school. Yet, the book affected me so powerfully that I felt dreamy and disconnected for weeks. When I read Sula it was like someone took the cover off the sky, filling it with a new kind of light. Seriously.

sula

So, earlier this year, I dove into re-reading Sula with great curiosity and anticipation.

Sula tells the story of a poor black community in an Ohio town in the 1920’s and 30’s, focusing primarily on two childhood friends, Nel and Sula. They sustain a deep friendship filled with dark secrets and unspoken connection, until Nel marries and Sula moves away. Their friendship becomes more complicated in adulthood and without giving too much away I’ll say that in the end, Nel is filled with both regret and longing. It is not really a happy story, yet there are moments of humor, poetry and transcendent truth.

More than anything, Sula transformed my 15-year-old world through the breathtaking beauty of the language. It may have been the first book I read for the writing as much has for the next plot twist. I swooned over lines like “when the day broke in an incredible splash of sun,” or this description of Sula’s eyes, “Her gold-flecked eyes, which, to the end, were as steady and clean as rain.” I still swoon.

In my recent re-reading, I was particularly struck by the descriptions of Nel and Sula’s early friendship: “In the safe harbor of each other’s company they could afford to abandon the ways of other people and concentrate on their own perceptions of things.” Morrison conjures the secret, timeless world of childhood, and first steps towards separation. On the same page, she writes “… toughness was not their quality – adventuresomeness was – and a mean determination to explore everything that interested them” and conveys the sense of discovery and tentative joy that goes with those pre-adolescent forays into independence. (It also made me think of the “like a girl” campaign.)

In re-reading Sula I was also struck by the darkness and sadness of the story. Awful things that happen in the book – deaths, betrayal, abandonment. Sula is filled with hints of magical realism and melancholy truthfulness; it is an examination of the limitations of human relationships, the closeness and distance that lies between even the most intimate of friends and lovers.

And of course, this book is also about race. Sula chronicles indignities that Nel, Sula, and other poor, black characters face, though it is more than a chronicle, it shows how race is part of the fabric of the characters lives: “Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white or male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be.”

old photos summer 1987
My world in the summer of 1987. Working at the beach, a hiking trip, reading.

No doubt, reading Sula as an adolescent cracked my privileged world open. When I think of the experience, I think of this TED talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, on The Danger of a Single Story. Before reading Sula, I read a lot of 19th century British novels, with governesses, genteel parties, and usually a marriage proposal. Sula provided me with another story, another narrative, and allowed me to see into another, very different world.

It was no different in my recent re-reading. Only this time, it was like returning to a familiar place. It all came back to me- the one-legged matriarch, the harrowing escape from school bullies, the humiliations of segregated train travel. I’d held onto the vivid characters and scenes all along, and they glowed like jewels in my memory. They were only waiting to be stitched back into the whole magnificent novel.

morning reading sula

Whew! That was a long post. It’s hard to write breezily about a book like Sula. Thanks for sticking with me. I do hope to continue this series of Books that Changed Me. Next up is The Witch of Blackbird Pond, a Newbury Award winning YA book, which promises a less wordy post.

I also hope you’ll tell me what books resonated deeply with you in your early years. In other words, what books changed you?

Off topic, or five novels that changed me

books

When I started this blog, I planned to avoid two topics: books and cooking. Not because I don’t love those topics dearly (I do!) but because I worried I would be so busy posting about books and cooking, that I would never get around to anything else.

Today, I’m breaking that self-imposed rule and talking books, thanks to Kate, at Book Nook, who recently asked the very simple question what is your favorite book? And are there different books for different stages in your life?

I could talk about books all day long, and I whole-heartedly agree that there are different books for different ages. The concept of a favorite book has always been problematic for me, not because I can’t pick one book, but because the word “favorite” feels too insignificant to reflect how I feel (or have felt) about certain books.

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When I was an adolescent, I would have called Wuthering Heights my more-than-favorite book. I read it countless times by age 18, and in college I managed to write at least three papers on it. As an adult, I am fairly certain that I might now find it wild, excessive, histrionic. Plus, I pretty much know it by heart. Still, Wuthering Heights is filled with brilliant tidbits, quotes, observations, and the one that has stuck with me the most is this quote, voiced by the ever-romantic Catherine Earnshaw:

“I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.” 

It is such a beautiful image for how an idea, a feeling, a thought, can permeate and change you. And books do to. When I try to name favorite book, that is where my mind flies – to the books that have washed through me and “altered the color of my mind.” A bit grandiose, maybe, but still, true of a great book.

Since my affair with Wuthering Heights, I’ve read many, many good books, and a few that changed me, or altered the color of my mind. I’ll post my list below, but first, I’ll add that there are many bloggers who write beautifully about books and reading, including the afore-mentioned Kate at Book Nook, Lindsey at A Design so Vast, and Anny at Dreaming in Stitches. They all inspire me and I’m happy to be jumping in on the reading discussion.

crossing to safety book

(1) Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. When asked what is my favorite book, I often cite Crossing to Safety, a beautifully written story of life-long friendship between two couples. The novel follows the Langs and the Morgans from their ambitious early lives into old age. This book is filled with the realities of adulthood – births of children, illness, faltering careers and transcendant love and friendship. The only thing that surpises me is that I loved it so much the first time I read it and I was only about 24. This book is compassionate, honest, adult and subsequent readings have still held me enthralled.

the known world

(2) The Known World by Edward P. Jones. The only novel written by Edward P. Jones (thusfar) and the winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, The Known World takes on slavery in the antebellum American South. Jones strips away any vestige of Gone with the Wind style picturesqueness of the epoch. The rawness, the loneliness, and physical vulnerability of both slaves and slave owners is palpable and not surpisingly the story is heartbreaking. What did surprise me is how much I loved it despite its deep sadness and dark subject matter. Even now, eight years after reading it, this book sticks with me.

(3) History of Love by Nicole Krauss. The unforgettable story of world war II refugee Leo Gursky, who is pining for a lost love and a lost book manuscript, and the story of 13 year-old Alma Singer. Their stories are masterfully woven together and the final twist is funny, sad and absolutely thrilling. I read this book when my children were small and one of my fond memories of is sinking into the couch for an hour of reading during their naptime. I don’t have a photo of it because I can’t find my copy – I must have lent it out to someone.

cien anos de soledad

(4) One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Cyclical time, repeated names, gypsies, fortunes made and spent, alchemy, an unending civil war, an entire town of insomniacs, banana companies that come and go, and an industrious and long-lived matriarch, this book is filled with archetypes, luminous moments and poetic prose, and there is a reason it won so many, many awards. I would have considered this book my favorite in my early twenties, when my Spanish was good and I was working in Latin America. I recently re-read it with my book club (in English this time), confirming my deep connection with this novel. I was surprised that it was not universally loved by the group, but then, maybe I would have not loved it so, had I not first read it as a younger person.

(5) Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. As I explained above, I loved this book to excess when I was an adolescent. There’s a reason its a classic.