13 Best Toni Morrison Books Update 05/2022

Best Toni Morrison Books

Toni Morrison and her singular work live on in our hearts and minds, rippling like concentric circles over fathomless depths as she upends and transforms myths of race and redemption, personal and political, despite her death more than two years ago. Morrison was born on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, and raised there, earning degrees from Howard and Cornell. He was one of only 12 Americans to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. She went on to become the first Black female editor at Random House, where she shepherded luminaries like Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, and Gayl Jones into print as a divorced mother of two. Her true calling, though, was writing and teaching, and at Princeton, she traded in her editor’s desk for a typewriter and a lectern. She coached writers like David Treuer and Mohsin Hamid, and according to all accounts, her finger was always on the pulse of a workshop piece, unerring in its aim and accurate in its critique.

But, as she requested, we know her now through her novels and one published short story. On the occasion of Toni Morrison’s 91st birthday, we raise a glass to 13 of her seminal works—13 ways Toni Morrison unflinchingly examined the world, its beauty, brutality, and wonders—and immerse ourselves once more in her rich storytelling and evocative language.

The Bluest Eye (1970)

The Bluest Eye (1970)

This debut novel follows Pecola, a little Black girl growing up in the years after the Great Depression in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison’s hometown. Pecola is ridiculed about her dark skin, hair, and eyes all the time, making her yearn for the white qualities she thinks are more attractive, such as blonde hair, light eyes, and fair complexion. However, the little girl’s personal life takes a devastating turn as she prays for the miracle of blue eyes. Morrison boldly proclaims the issues that will power her extended career, literary jet fuel, from racial strife to sexual abuse to her characters’ inner problems.

Sula (1973)

Sula takes you on a journey through the lives of two best friends, Nel and Sula, and how their paths diverge. One chooses to stay in their hometown and have a family, while the other goes to college and lives in the city. They quickly reconcile, recognizing their differences as well as the implications of their own life decisions. Morrison delves into larger historical arcs and how they affect us all.

Song of Solomon (1977)

Song of Solomon is one of Morrison’s most well-known works, a blend of realism, fable, and fantasy that won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978 and was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club in 1996. It follows Macon Dead, Jr. (a.k.a. Milkman) from birth to adulthood, delving into the various mysteries and fascinating people that surround him, as well as the heinousness of racial violence. In a 1977 review, the New York Times’ Reynolds Price stated of Morrison, “Few Americans know, and can say, more than she has in this smart and spacious novel.”

Tar Baby (1981)

The unexpected love connection of a young Black couple from two different cultures is shown in this romance. Jadine is a stunning fashion model who has grown up in an affluent home with wealthy white employers; Son is an impoverished fugitive. They work together to create a society where individuals aren’t pitted against one another because of superficial differences. As she sifts through the layers of class conflict, Morrison’s lighter register is deceiving.

Beloved (1987)

Beloved (1987)

This work, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, is possibly Morrison’s most well-known. Sethe, Beloved is based on Margaret Garner’s actual story about a former slave who flees to Ohio in the 1870s. Despite her newfound freedom, she is plagued by her prior suffering. Oprah Winfrey starred in the film adaption in 1998. In a 1987 review for The New York Times, Margaret Atwood said, “Beloved is written in an antiminimalist prose that is by turns lush, graceful, quirky, harsh, lyrical, sinuous, colloquial, and very much to the point.”

Jazz (1992)

The tumultuous love triangle of door-to-door salesman Joe, his wife, Violet, and his adolescent girlfriend, Dorcas, is depicted in this historical novel set in 1920s Harlem. Dorcas begins to detest and reject Joe, and he kills her in an unexpected turn of events. In the aftermath, a timeline is cobbled together that shows Morrison’s cast’s motivations and inner torment.

Paradise (1997)

Paradise, which was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club in 1998, is the third and final installment of the Beloved trilogy, and it tells the story of the events that lead to a terrible act of violence in Ruby, a patriarchal all-Black Oklahoma town. Morrison’s rich narrative frameworks parallel her keen eye for Black history, creating a world-building tour de force that is both grounded in truth and bursting with speculative vigor.

Love (2003)

Love is a split narrative that recounts the lives of the various women who shared relationships with a deceased hotel owner named Bill Cosey, who died under dubious circumstances. Cosey’s life was filled with love and misery thanks to these women, who ranged from his granddaughter to his widow. Morrison highlights the numerous ways the dead hold the living in a vise-like grip, much as he did in Beloved.

A Mercy (2008)

A Mercy (2008)

Morrison delves deeper into the past in this scene, depicting the slave trade in the 1680s. A Mercy follows an Anglo-Dutch adventurer who takes in Florens, a young girl who was traded in for a debt settlement. She works on his farm, able to read and write, looking for connection and safety from her coworkers in a kind of parable, a pilgrim’s stumbling route toward reconciliation.

Home (2012)

Frank Money, a young Black Korean War veteran, returns home only to find himself thrown back into America’s race wars while simultaneously facing the threat of combat. He eventually returns to his once-despised Georgia homeland in order to save his abused younger sister—a voyage that appears to be his salvation.

God Help the Child (2015)

God Help the Child is Morrison’s first novel set in the twenty-first century, and it deals with the issue of colorism. Bride, the main character, is a beautiful and confident dark-skinned woman, but her fair-skinned mother withholds love and instead abuses her because of her appearance. Morrison looks deeper into the tensions that exist between mothers and daughters, as well as the rifts that exist in even the most intimate relationships.

The Source of Self-Regard (2019)

This nonfiction collection, Morrison’s final book before her death, is a remarkable culmination of some of her most striking lectures and articles. She eloquently focuses on riches, female empowerment, and the Black imagination, from a James Baldwin funeral to thoughts on Gertrude Stein, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the painter Romare Bearden.

Recitatif (2022)

Morrison’s first short story, first published in 1983 and reissued as a hardcover last month, is a formal experiment that simultaneously stokes and defies our expectations, a chess game she’s destined to win. Twyla and Roberta are “dumped” as 8-year-olds into a home for runaway and orphaned girls for four months; Twyla recalls, “my mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick.” They’re hapless puppets toward the bottom of the social pecking order at St. Bonaventure, just above Maggie, the silent, crippled kitchen help. But Morrison has a gambit up her sleeve: one of the girls is white, while the other is black, and Morrison jumbles their racial identities through a sequence of actions that subvert historical hierarchies and simple binaries. When the girls rejoin as women, they set out to discover the truth about what happened all those years ago. Zadie Smith opens the book with an insightful, startling preface, highlighting the obligations the author has placed on herself and us all, moving outside of her comfort zone while persistently arguing for “the African American culture out of which and toward which Morrison works.”

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