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June Jazz

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The Ladies Book Club met on Thursday, June 2nd, at Churchill Street Recreation Center to discuss Jazz by Toni Morrison. With seasonal residents gone, we had 11 ladies there. We signed in, grabbed our name tent and found a place to sit, glad to see each other again. Some of us made a stop at the Books to Share table.

Kathy Morey started the meeting by reminding us to stop by the Books-to-Share table before they are donated. For next month, we'll be reading Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen. A donation envelope for the club's Books for Children reading fund was circulating, but Eileen Roberta wasn't there so we don't know what the total amount has been collected so far. Also, last month, she and Sue Laluk said they'd gone to the Cheers restaurant at Stonecrest to inquire whether they could accommodate our club for our Christmas/Holiday luncheon. She thought she had tried their fried fish sandwich, but she hadn't; she had a grilled chicken sandwich, but it was delicious as she thought her fish sandwich was (LOL). For our menu selection for December, we'll have our choice of salmon berry spinach salad, grilled Reuben sandwich, chicken salad on a croissant, grilled chicken sandwich, veggie portabella sandwich, with our choice of a side: fruit cocktail, fries, sweet potato fries, or coleslaw. Includes coffee, tea, or soda. Sounds good. Thanks Kathy & Sue.

With announcements out of the way, Kathy turned the meeting over to Tary Yurkovich, our discussion leader for Jazz by Toni Morrison. Before the meeting, Tary handed out a list of major characters in the book, which was a big help. She started with some background on the author. Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in February 18th, 1931. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. The critically acclaimed Song of Solomon (1977) brought her national attention and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved (1987); she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

Born and raised in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison graduated from Howard University in 1953 with a B.A. in English. She earned a master's degree in American Literature from Cornell University in 1955. In 1957 she returned to Howard University, was married, and had two children before divorcing in 1964. She became the first black female editor in fiction at Random House in New York City in the late 1960s. She developed her own reputation as an author in the '70s and '80s. Her work Beloved was made into a film in 1998. Morrison's works are praised for addressing the harsh consequences of racism in the United States and the Black American experience. The National Endowment for the Humanities selected Morrison for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities, in 1996. She was honored with the National Book Foundation's Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters the same year. President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on May 29, 2012. She received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction in 2016. Morrison was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2020.

Morrison was the second of four children in a working-class black family. Her mother was born in Greenville, Alabama, and her family moved north when she was a child. She was a homemaker and a devout member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Her father grew up in Cartersville, Georgia. When he was about 15, a group of white people lynched two African-American businessmen who lived on his street. He never told his family that he had seen the bodies, but he had. It traumatized him and he moved to the racially integrated town of Lorain, Ohio, to escape racism. He hated whites so much he wouldn't let one in the house. When Morrison was about two, her family's landlord set fire to their house while they were inside because her parents couldn't afford to pay rent. At 12, she became a Catholic and took the baptismal name Anthony (after Anthony of Padua), which led to her nickname, Toni.

She taught English for two years at Texas Southern University in Houston, then at Howard University for seven years. While teaching at Howard, she met Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, whom she married in 1958. They divorced while she was pregnant with their second son. After her son was born, she worked in the textbook division for L. W. Singer, a division of Random House in New Yorkr, then transferred to Random House in New York City two years later, becoming their first black woman senior editor in the fiction department. In that capacity, she played a vital role in bringing Black literature into the mainstream. Her first novel was The Bluest Eye, which brought her to the attention of acclaimed editor Robert Gottlieb, who ended up editing most of Morrison's novels. Morrison's second novel Sula was about the friendship between two black women and was nominated for the National Book Award. Her third novel, Song of Solomon, follows the life of Macon "Milkman" Dead III from birth to adulthood, which brought her national acclaim as a main selection of the Book of the Month Club and winning the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The author left publishing in 1987 to devote more time to writing, also teaching at the State University of New York and Rutgers University. Her most celebrated novel, Beloved, was a huge success and a bestseller for 25 weeks, but failed winning the prestigious National Book Award or National Book Critics Circle Award. This brought protests from 48 other black writers, including Maya Angelou. Two months later it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Beloved was the first in a trilogy, Jazz being the second in the trilogy, and Paradise being the third. The movie adaptation of Beloved, co-produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey who'd spent ten years bringing it to the screen, flopped at the box office but got a good review by the New York Times. Oprah Winfrey selected Song of Solomon for her newly launched Book Club in 1996, which became a popular feature on her Oprah Winfrey Show. Four of Morrison's books were featured by the Book Club, boosting Morrison's career and book sales, called "The Oprah Effect", even more than when she won the Pulitzer Prize.

Tary then read excepts from some the the reviews of Jazz. David Nicholson praised her "beautifully written, filled with powerful, visionary language, moments in it that cut as close to the heart of the matter.... But Jazz is also a maddening book, disjointed and digressive, testimony to the limits of language and of unconventional narrative forms.... Jazz is an idiosyncratically constructed, homemade quilt of a book, mixing high and low styles, like a sweet potato pie topped with whipped cream and Grand Marnier." What were our thoughts on the book? Kathy Morey thought Morrison's technique got in the way of the story. She was affected by the story, but didn't love it. That summed it up for others, as well. Danette Baily said she had a terrible time with it; others admitted to the same by nodding their heads in agreement. Kathy added that the author's writing was masterful, fantastic, but it still got in the way of the story. Tary agreed that the writing was masterful.

Joe Trace was a murderer and adulterer. Was he a sympathetic character? At first, he wasn't for many of us, but as we learned more about him, we became more sympathetic toward him. He was a good looking man, hard working, the women in the neighborhood trusted him and let him into their homes to sell cosmetics to them. They liked him. Someone added that he listened to them and what they said, not typical of the men around them. Someone else added that he didn't just listen to them and what they said, he really liked women and was comfortable being around them, and that came through.

Someone brought up how surprised she was that Alice (Dorcas' aunt who took the murdered girl in after her parents died) and Violet (Joe's wife, who wanted to cut Dorcas in her coffin for stealing her husband) became friends. She loved how they found a way to overcome what had happened and accepted each other and actually became friends. It was quipped that Alice didn't have much choice; Violet just kept showing up. A couple people commented that they found the side stories interesting and that they helped them better understand the characters. Someone else said they had mixed feelings about the relationship and the book, but they were glad they read it.

Tary thought one of the main themes of the book was forgiveness (Alice & Violet, Violet & Joe, etc.) and others agreed, but she also found it to be a tough book to read. Kathy found the southern characters interesting, like Vera Louise, the white woman sent to Baltimore when she became pregnant with bi-racial child. The names were interesting, too: Rose Dear (Violet's mother, who jumped into a well), True Belle (Rose Dear's mother and Vera Louise's servant, who cares for Rose Dear's orphaned children), Golden Gray (Vera Louise's child who looks white and has golden hair), and Wild (a wild woman who is Joe's mother, found by Golden Gray on his way to find his father). Sue Laluk saw a parallel in Joe frantically searching for Dorcas with Joe's search for his mother in a cave. Kathy disliked Dorcas for the way she dumped Joe. Others thoroughly disliked Acton, the fancy man Dorcas dumped Joe for, the way all the women wanted him, his distain for all of them, how he just expected to be adored and given gifts by all of them, but especially for his lack for caring for what happened to Dorcas, complaining that her blood got on his shirt. We all pretty much agreed that he was a jerk.

Next, Tary asked whether we agreed with Dorcas' friend, Felice, who says, "Dorcas was ugly, outside and in"? We seemed to be split on that. On one hand, we had sympathy for her, seeing her parents die in the house fire, and how she ended up, and she may have looked at Joe as a father figure. On the other hand, she had no care about getting involved with a married man and how it would affect his wife. She would also goad her friends and boys into doing dangerous things and seemed to enjoy the danger of it, then just walking away without remorse if they got caught... but that didn't come out until near the end.

How did Joe and Violet meet, and were they in love? We chuckled as we recalled Joe falling out of the tree. At least one person thought it was love at first sight. Others recalled that she was annoyed with him for almost falling on her and it was her tree, where she slept. Sue reminded us that Joe liked to talk and was very likeable (everyone seemed to like him) and he listened to her and what she was saying. She felt that they fell in love from talking. Sharon Hanlon said she really liked Joe, and others tended to agree. What prompted Violet's depression?Neither wanted children, so her numerous miscarriages didn't pose a problem, but somewhere along the line, as she got older, she mourned the losses and wanted a child, to the point where she almost kidnapped a child. Instead, they filled their apartment with birds.

Why did Violet release the birds in the dead of winter, especially the parrot, after she finds out that Joe had an affair and killed Dorcas? The birds provided some comfort, even as she and Joe became more distant. His infidelity shattered their marriage. She rejected everything she held dear, including Joe, her trust and what she thought her marriage was and she took it out on the birds. Someone suggested that because the parrot kept saying "I love you", she rejected it, believing that she wasn't lovable. And as she and Joe slowly mended their marriage, he suggested that the house needed birds again.

True Belle came up again, and how she doted on the golden haired baby, Golden Gray. South African comedian, TV host and political commentator Trevor Noah is of mixed race and he wrote a memoir, Born a Crime. His unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act his birth. It includes stories of his childhood and how he struggled to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. The book was highly recommended and might be a good book to read next year.

Why did Dorcas choose to die? She didn't want them to call an ambulance; she just wanted to rest as she bled out on the hostess' bed. That brought to mind the hostess complaining about her blood-soaked mattress and Anton showing disgust that his shirt had been stained. She may have wanted to die, thinking she should have died in the fire with her parents. She always seemed to be living on the edge, pushing the envelope on what she could get away with, lying to her aunt and sneaking around when she didn't have to. She might have felt she deserved it. Then it was brought up that she would have died anyway. When someone finally called for an ambulance, it took them two or three days to get there. Why didn't they call the police? Joe was briefly seen at the party, but since no one actually saw him kill her, there was no sense in calling them... if they'd even come to investigate a black person killing another. And no one wanted the police nosing around, asking questions and interfering in their lives.

How did we react to how Joe got his last name? That brought a smile to our faces. When he was in school, he was asked for his last name. He came up with Trace because when he inquired about his parents, his adoptive mother told him his parents left him behind. "O honey, (your parents) disappeared without a trace." It was sadly funny. Sue said that Joe's mother, Wild, reminded her of Hamnet's mother's mother, who wandered the woods for herbs and medicines and felt most at home in the woods.

Our final verdict on the book was that we were glad to have read it even though it wasn't something we would have picked up to read on our own. Everyone applauded Tary for the job she did as discussion leader. It was a good discussion. For next month, we'll be reading Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen. Pam Iserloth will lead the discussion.

Jazz by Toni Morrison

In 1926, when everybody everywhere sees nothing but good ahead, Joe, a middle-aged door-to-door salesman, shoots his teenage love to death. A profound story of love and obsession brings us back and forth in time, in a narrative of emotion, hope, fear and the deep realities of black urban life.

See you next month. Happy reading....

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