This novel is sometimes slow, sometimes action-packed, and could have done with about 200 fewer pages. While the characters are vivid and flawed, usuaThis novel is sometimes slow, sometimes action-packed, and could have done with about 200 fewer pages. While the characters are vivid and flawed, usually a good recipe for success for me, I just didn't love this book.
One reason is that there were multiple places where Theo's thoughts or observations rang distinctly false, taking me right out of the story. For example, describing his therapist, at age thirteen:
"If I'd had to guess, I would have said he was newly married, with a baby -- he gave off a glazed vibe of exhausted young fatherhood, like he might have to get up and change diapers in the night -- but who knew?"
This is absolutely not a believable observation for a thirteen-year-old to make, especially an only child without a normal father figure. Another example:
"I remembered all the times I'd stepped inside to find my mother sorting the mail, waiting for the elevator. Fresh from work, heels and briefcase, with the flowers I'd sent for her birthday."
His mother died when he was thirteen; how many times could he realistically have sent her flowers? It's hard to believe a thirteen-year-old did that, let alone that he did it when he was even younger.
The best moments were Theo's interactions with the painting, which were few because he keeps it hidden for most of the book. His thoughts in those moments, though, are the most real emotions he has:
"Quickly I slid it out, and almost immediately its glow enveloped me, something almost musical, an internal sweetness that was inexplicable beyond a deep, blood-rocking harmony of rightness, the way your heart beat slow and sure when you were with a person you felt safe with and loved. A power, a shine, came off it, a freshness like the morning light in my old bedroom in New York which was serene yet exhilarating, a light that rendered everything sharp-edged and yet more tender and lovely than it actually was, and lovelier still because it was part of the past, and irretrievable."
The painting is Theo's only remaining connection to his mother. Without giving anything away, I will say that I was a little disappointed in the ending. The ultimate lesson of the book (repeated multiple times by multiple characters to make sure the reader can't possibly miss it) is that good things can come from terrible, horrible things and that no matter your intentions, good or bad, the result can still be really good or really bad. This doesn't really interest me.
I'm more interested in Theo's final reaction to seeing the painting one last time:
"And I'm hoping there's some larger truth about suffering here, or at least my understanding of it -- although I've come to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don't, and can't, understand. What's mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn't fit into a story, what doesn't have a story. Glint of brightness on a barely-there chain. Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loneliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature. Sorrow inseparable from joy."
The author uses mosaics as an extended metaphor because of the way the art-form brings broken pieces together to create a beautiful and harmonious whoThe author uses mosaics as an extended metaphor because of the way the art-form brings broken pieces together to create a beautiful and harmonious whole. As a skilled mosaicist tells Williams:
"Part of the nature of man is to recompose a unity that has been broken. In mosaic, I re-create an order out of shards."
The book uses an experimental style: the text is broken into short bits with space between, like the broken tessera used to create a mosaic. The first 50-ish pages are on the history and creation of mosaics, giving the reader a really good sense of why the metaphor is going to work. Thereafter, the first half of the remaining pages are devoted to prairie dogs, including a long section of scientific observation of a prairie dog colony. The second half is about the author's trip to Rwanda as part of a team working with a genocide-survivor community to create a memorial to those lost in the tragedy. The memorial includes, of course, many mosaics.
First, for my taste the metaphor was extremely heavy-handed. The extreme separateness of the books three parts, the chunking of text into short bits, and the inserted-after-the-fact feel of the references to mosaic creation in the prairie dog section especially, felt more overdone than illuminating. One example is the page where a prairie dog outline is created by the placement of words around the edges - the words being the animals and plants that the prairie dog helps to sustain.
Second, I was uncomfortable with the way the book sometimes equates humans and animals. While I strongly believe in the preservation of the environment, both animals and plants, and think that much of what has been and continues to be done to destroy prairie dogs and their habitat is awful, I cannot put it on the same level as the Rwandan genocide as Williams sometimes does. It reminded me of the way some animal rights activists compare factory farming to slavery or lynching. Is factory farming horrific? Yes. Is it equivalent to human slavery or genocide? Absolutely not.
The final section of the book, where Williams listens to the stories of the genocide survivors in Rwanda, and helps them create a memorial worthy of those they lost, was very interesting. It was fascinating to consider the difficulty of balancing punishment and forgiveness for the perpetrator culture, in a society where so many were killed so brutally and where hatred between cultures still survives. Williams' translator (who becomes like a son to her) says:
"Rwanda is struggling with peace one person at a time. This is as hard as growing wheat on rock. We are finding our way toward unity and reconciliation on a walkway full of thorns, and we are walking barefoot."
Ultimately, though I'm not sure Williams accomplishes her goal with this book, the goal itself is clearly stated: "Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find."
While I don't know much about the real-life characters and situations that Waugh is satirizing, I was still very, very amused by this novel. All throuWhile I don't know much about the real-life characters and situations that Waugh is satirizing, I was still very, very amused by this novel. All throughout, Boot is more or less carried along for the ride and it's only really dumb luck and stubbornness that allow him to ultimately get the scoop that all the journalists are seeking.
The way the journalists go about their work - spending money like crazy, friendly with each other but also ruthlessly competing, worried about writing stories that will sell papers and getting them submitted first but not worried much about whether the stories are true - was very funny.
Also very funny was the relationship between Lord Copper, newspaper magnate, and Mr. Salter, foreign editor. Copper's ever-changing whims are followed to a T, and reading about Mr. Salter trying to operate in the space between Copper and the confused and very under-experienced Boot, was probably my favorite part of the novel.
Most interesting (and scarily real) was the complete lack of understanding around who is fighting who and why in Ishmaelia coupled with the sense that it's still news of national importance. Journalists from around the world are there and submitting stories, but they don't actually know anything at all. This is most evident when they all head off to a city that doesn't even exist, all because one journalist wrote a story about the place and they must all now follow suit.
This is a humorous look at sensationalist journalism that, we can only hope, is more satire than reality.
Themes: journalism, humor, politics, absurdity of war, news vs. truth, mixed-up identity, satire...more
"Being colored is like being born in the basement of life, with the door to the light locked and barred -- and the white folks live upstairs."
What a"Being colored is like being born in the basement of life, with the door to the light locked and barred -- and the white folks live upstairs."
What a fantastic novel! It's a simple, quick read that's packed full of lyrical, emotive language and a heartbreaking look at the reality of a young black boy growing up in 1930s Kansas. The wide opportunity gaps created by race and poverty are palpable in every sentence of this novel, as are the character's hopes and dreams. They are working hard to survive (each in his or her own way) in a reality where they are denied almost every single chance for success.
As a young boy, Sandy loves all the people in his life - his grandma, his mom and dad, his aunts - and his point of view allows the reader to see the value in each of their very different perspectives.
His dad Jimboy is a drifter, what some call lazy and good-for-nothing, but Sandy sees his positive energy, his quiet pushback against a society that offers him nothing, and his musical talent.
"O, they've got us cornered, all right," said Jimboy. "The white folks are like farmers that own all the cows and let the niggers take care of 'em. Then they make you pay a sweet price for skimmed milk and keep the cream for themselves."
His grandmother, who does endless laundry for white families despite her old age and waning health, relies on her faith and the power of love to keep her going.
"When you starts hatin' people, you gets uglier than they is -- an' I ain't never had no time for ugliness, 'cause that's where de devil comes in -- in ugliness!"
"I's been livin' a long time in yesterday, Sandy chile, an' I knows there ain't no room in de world fo' nothin' mo'n love. I knows, chile! Ever'thing there is but lovin' leaves a rust on yo' soul. An' to love sho 'nough, you got to have a spot in yo' heart fo' ever'body -- great an' small, white an' black, an them what's good an' them what's evil -- 'cause love ain't got no crowded-out places where de good ones stays an' de bad ones can't come in."
Sandy's mother is deeply in love with Jimboy and lives for the short periods of time he spends at home and for his letters when he's gone. Sandy's aunt is a talented singer and dancer who dreams of being successful without having to cook or clean for white people.
This novel broke my heart. Most heartbreaking was the chapter about Christmas, when Sandy's mom and grandma do their best to give him what he wants for Christmas. Inevitably he is disappointed on Christmas, but is old enough to know to hide his tears.
"But Santa Claus was mean to poor kids sometimes, Sandy knew, when their parents had no money."
though, there is more hope than anger here. I can only imagine that Hughes would have hoped for much more progress towards racial and economic equity over the past three-quarters of a century.
"But was that why Negroes were poor, because they were dancers, jazzers, clowns? ... The other way round would be better: dancers because of their poverty; singers because they suffered; laughing all the time because they must forget."