Monday, 17 December 2012


It is the 1970's and though racial discrimination has been ruled as unacceptable, there is still a lingering sense of segregation in an American urban community. The blacks live on one side while the whites live on the other. Children go to their races' assigned schools, and for African American children, the school is Price, the setting of the novel.

One day, a white kid comes as a new student in class.  He is immediately dubbed as Jesus Boy. Being the first and only white kid in Price, Jesus Boy's coming made a stir in class.

Some of the kids were curious about the new kid: Samantha, a religious kid, believes that Jesus Boy is Jesus; Maribel, in her arrogance and disgust, shared  that Jesus Boy paid with pennies instead of dollars when he bought food from their family's store; and Frannie claimed that she saw Jesus Boy's father whom she described as black-colored like them.

But not everyone in school were satisfied at simply being curious. One of the kids in class, Trevor,  teases Jesus Boy in every chance he gets, telling Jesus Boy to return to his old school where other white kids go.

The story is told from the point of view of Frannie, a preteen who's only beginning to understand the things that are happening around her. She tries to explain many things: why Samantha's religious; why everybody laughed when Trevor was humiliated; and why, in Emily Dickinson's poem, hope is described as a "thing with feathers".

Frannie is particularly sensitive about disabilities because of her brother Sean who is deaf. She becomes angry when girls, who are initially attracted to Sean, would suddenly lose interest when they learn of his disability. She stares at other kids who make jokes about deafness and sign language. For Frannie, sign language is as natural as having a second language; so it makes her wonder what makes deafness seem too different for the others.

Frannie also feels torn on how her classmates treat Jesus Boy. She notices that Trevor and his friends always pick on Jesus Boy, and that Jesus Boy eats alone at lunch. She once experienced being a new student herself and she didn't like the loneliness she felt; but when she thinks about Jesus Boy, a white boy attending in their school, she agrees with the rest that it does feel strange.

Throughout the novel, Frannie is torn with her questions and not all of her questions will be answered in the end. Some are left hanging, letting readers to ponder for their own explanation.

This novel presents discrimination on varied aspects: race, disability, economic status, and religion. Though the theme of discrimination is highly sensitive, Jacqueline Woodson managed to present it in a story and in a tone that is not pitying, nor condescending, nor righteous. Through Frannie's point of view, the novel takes a tone that blends innocence with a developing wisdom; it's tone is curious, but respectful and understanding.

In this novel, Jacqueline Woodson shares a deeper look at the seeming victims of discrimination, giving them depth and a lighter dimension that are frequently overlooked and misunderstood by those who discriminate or pity. Because of it, the novel makes a fitting read for anyone who are seeking a refreshingly lighter view on discrimination.

"It's different, Sean said. Imagine if there was a bridge from every single window in the world to some whole new place. That would be crazy, wouldn't it? It would mean we could all just step out of our worlds into these whole new ones."

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Sputnik Sweetheart

The young and naive Sumire is in love for the first time in her life, so it did not matter if the object of her affection is Miu, an older married woman. Though Sumire tried to justify her attraction as a mere admiration, there remained an inexplicable feeling that brings Sumire an excitement and drive to have Miu's affection.

At a glance, the two makes an unlikely pair: Sumire is twenty-two, a college drop out and a struggling novelist; while Miu is thirty-nine and running a successful business on imported wines. Miu is methodical and sophisticated. Sumire is sloppy and dissolute. Miu is clearly out of Sumire's league, so to speak.

There is, however, a common  interest between the two, and though it is only one, it proved to be strong. On the first time Sumire and Miu met, they talked about classical music, and before their first meeting ended, Miu offered Sumire to be her personal secretary.

Sumire took the opportunity despite her doubt on her  abilities. Sumire changed to gain Miu's affection; from wearing oversized clothes, she became presentable; from a chain-smoker, she became a non-smoker; and from an obsessed writer, she stopped writing. The transformation bothere Sumire that she called her situation a 'defection', then finally confessing her feeling of loneliness and confusion:
"'Sometimes I feel so - I don't know - lonely. The kind of helpless feeling when everything you're used to has been ripped away. Like there's no more gravity, and I'm left to drift in the outer space with no idea where I'm going.'
'Like a little lost Sputnik?'
'I guess so.' "
Sumire confided all her thoughts to K, her only friend and also the story teller in the novel. They both love fiction, and talk in metaphors. K reads Sumire's writings and hangs out with her even in the wee hours of the morning. Obviously, K loves Sumire in the same way that Sumire loves Miu.

The story revolves on the complicated love triangle that is webbed by unrequited love: K loving Sumire, but Sumire loving Miu. Instead of pleasuring readers with warmth and love, this novel presents an overwhelming feeling of rejection and loneliness.

The characters' sentiments and acts makes this novel absorbing and affecting. With characters  emotionally wallowed and pained, one would expect them to act and fulfill their longing. But exactly like how ordinary individuals would do, though puzzled and grieving, they stay practical, detached, and go on with their lives like nothing happened, giving this novel that painfully realistic touch.
" 'And it came to me then. That we were wonderful traveling companions, but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal on their own separate orbits. From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they're nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere. When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together. Maybe even open our hearts to each other. But that was only for the briefest moment. In the next instant we'd be in absolute solitude. Until we burned up and became nothing.' "
Sputnik Sweetheart has the usual Murakami effect, with ordinary people living their ordinary lives suddenly trapped into what seems like an alternate, parallel world. In the story's beginning, Sumire is caught in love with Miu, a contrast to her sloppy and hermit life. On another turning point, K finds himself in an idyllic Greek island, bathing in the sun, a scene that is far from his dull life as a school teacher.

To enjoy this novel, readers should keep an open mind about the possible existence of a parallel universe. In other novels, all the metaphors would have remained as metaphors, but Murakami blends a realistic world with an alternate universe, turning some of the supposed symbolic and metaphoric things as literal, real occurrences. Through this different view, the mundane reality is put in contrast with the infinite possibilities that the alternate world offers. According to the novel, it's a place where our lost, isolated characters find love and clarity, where the characters' metaphors are alive, where K and Sumire's longing are fulfilled, and where too Miu lost a part of herself.

With no definite ending, and a writing style that is simple yet mysterious and profound, this novel can be read and felt repeatedly. Each reading will give a lingering feeling of sadness, drawing readers into deeper thinking on loneliness and longing. This novel is for those who seek to understand the limits of relationships, companionship, and of life in general.