Review: Long Way Down, Jason Reynolds

Review: Long Way Down, Jason ReynoldsLong Way Down by Jason Reynolds
Published by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books ISBN: 1481438255
on October 24th 2017
Genres: Young Adult
Pages: 320
Buy on Amazon
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five-stars

A cannon. A strap.
A piece. A biscuit.
A burner. A heater.
A chopper. A gat.
A hammer.
A tool
for RULE

Or, you can call it a gun. That’s what fifteen-year-old Will has shoved in the back waistband of his jeans. See, his brother Shawn was just murdered. And Will knows the rules. No crying. No snitching. Revenge. That’s where Will’s now heading, with that gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, the gun that was his brother’s gun. He gets on the elevator, seventh floor, stoked. He knows who he’s after. Or does he? As the elevator stops on the sixth floor, on comes Buck. Buck, Will finds out, is who gave Shawn the gun before Will took the gun. Buck tells Will to check that the gun is even loaded. And that’s when Will sees that one bullet is missing. And the only one who could have fired Shawn’s gun was Shawn. Huh. Will didn’t know that Shawn had ever actually USED his gun. Bigger huh. BUCK IS DEAD. But Buck’s in the elevator? Just as Will’s trying to think this through, the door to the next floor opens. A teenage girl gets on, waves away the smoke from Dead Buck’s cigarette. Will doesn’t know her, but she knew him. Knew. When they were eight. And stray bullets had cut through the playground, and Will had tried to cover her, but she was hit anyway, and so what she wants to know, on that fifth floor elevator stop, is, what if Will, Will with the gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, MISSES.

And so it goes, the whole long way down, as the elevator stops on each floor, and at each stop someone connected to his brother gets on to give Will a piece to a bigger story than the one he thinks he knows. A story that might never know an END…if WILL gets off that elevator.

Long Way Down was all the talk of the recent National Council of Teachers of English Conference I attended right before Thanksgiving, and for good reason. Written entirely in verse, the whole book takes place in the course of 60 seconds as Will rides down the elevator with his brother Shawn’s gun tucked into his waistband and revenge on his mind. Reynolds captures the voice of his character with clarity and honesty.

The only thing I can say about this book is read it. It’s an experience. You won’t be able to put it down until you finish. Maybe not even then. Not a word feels out of place in this compelling story about the “rules” we force others to follow. I didn’t come up with this line, but a fellow reviewer on Goodreads remarked that Reynolds “doesn’t use the device of verse as a crutch; he wields it like a weapon.” It’s incredible what Reynolds can do with his spare free verse poetry. This is definitely one elevator ride you will not want to miss.

Jason Reynolds is an author to watch. Full disclosure: I met Jason Reynolds in 2016 at the NCTE conference. I was at a roundtable discussion, and he discussed rewriting Shakespeare’s sonnets in other idioms as a fun way to engage students. He demonstrated with his rendition of Sonnet 138, and it was incredible. He often discusses not being a reader when he was a teenager, which is one reason he has been moved to write the books he wanted to read when he was young.

five-stars

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Review: Citizen, Claudia Rankine

If you haven’t yet read Claudia Rankine’s multigenre blend of prose, poetry, art, and protest lyric Citizen: An American Lyric, do yourself a favor and pick it up. Particularly, perhaps especially, if you are white. Because you don’t understand, and even though reading a book is not the same as living the experience, it will open your eyes. Some of what you will read in this book you think you know, but the bone-deep weariness of living in America and being black permeates every single page of this beautifully written book.

Rankine writes about topics from the #blacklivesmatter movement to Hurricane Katrina to Venus and Serena Williams to Trayvon Martin to microaggressions. I think my favorite part was perhaps the extended section on Serena Williams. Many years ago, I used to follow tennis, but I haven’t really done so for about 25 years. So, I didn’t realize what Serena Williams had been through in her career, and it was educational to be sure. I also found section VI on Katrina, Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, the Jena Six, and New York’s stop and frisk policy especially powerful. Each was described as a script of a situation video.

Rankine experiments with boundaries. At times, it’s hard to classify what, exactly the form is—poetry? essay? The resulting book resembles an assignment I have given my students in the past: the multigenre research project. In this assignment, students research a topic, but rather than write a research paper to show what they learned, they write poems, stories, and essays (any genre you can think of, just about) and use photographs and art to tell the story of what they have learned. They are immensely creative, incredibly interesting and inventive, and highly expressive. Citizen could probably best be classified as a multigenre book on the black experience in America. It includes criticism, prose, poetry, art, and photography. In fact, the chilling omission of a key detail on p. 91 somehow rendered the photograph (which is a famous photograph of a lynching) even more stunning and frightening, and I’m not sure how, but you really have to see it. Even the cover is a fascinating work of art. At first glance, I thought it was a black mask, but I realized it is actually a hood like you might find on a hoodie sweatshirt.

I read Citizen in one gulp, and I probably should have slowed down to take it in because it deserves a thoughtful reading, but I couldn’t put it down. It’s one of those books I think I will be pressing into the hands of just about everyone I know. Powerful. Wow.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Sunday Post #32: Visiting Emily

Emily Dickinson's House

This weekend, I presented at a digital storytelling conference in Northampton/Amherst. My family came with me, and we visited Emily Dickinson’s home (now a museum) and grave. Now, given the title of my blog, you might guess I’m a fan. I am not sure what it is about her poetry—the jarring dashes and slant rhyme, the ballad meter (on most), or the strong images. I like the way she thinks, and I find I agree with her about a lot of larger issues in life.

We took a 45-minute tour of her house. You can also take a 90-minute tour that includes a tour of her brother Austin’s house next door. The tour began in a parlor, and the docent discussed some of the portraits hanging in the room and told us about Emily’s family. Next, we went into the library. Some of the books from the library are now housed in other locations, but some remain. The docent told a great story about Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s visit to Dickinson. It seems she wore the poor man out with conversation. He also shared the anecdote about Higginson’s reaction when Emily sent him her poetry—he described it as “spasmodic” and “uncontrolled.” Her famous reply: “You think my gait ‘spasmodic’—I am in danger—Sir—You think me ‘uncontrolled’—I have no Tribunal.”

The next stop is on the second floor. Sunlight shines through a window facing the front of the house, illuminating a replica of Emily Dickinson’s white dress. I nearly cried when I saw it. She must have been about the same height as me. A little more slender, though. About 20 years ago, I could have fit into her dress. The museum doesn’t allow pictures, but I sure wanted to break the rules to get a picture of that dress. You can find other pictures of it online, however.

Finally, we saw Emily’s bedroom. She has pictures of George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning on the wall, and according to our docent, Emily’s niece Mattie attested to the fact that Emily did hang picture of those two writers on her wall (whether they are the exact same ones, I don’t know). Her actual sleigh bed is still in the room. A replica of her little writing table sits in the corner. The room has recently been restored with wallpaper reconstructed from the actual wallpaper that Emily had in her room. It was amazing to stand in that space where Emily wrote most of her poems. I can’t really even describe how it felt.

We went outside to take a look at Emily’s gardens. Of course, she was a great gardener, but her garden doesn’t survive. Still, I found these beautiful purple flowers. The label said they were called “Love Lies Bleeding” (Amaranthus caudatus). They were gorgeous, and they seemed perfect for her garden.

Love Lies Bleeding

We took a short walk to the cemetery where she is buried. Luckily for us, a quick Google search led us to an article that indicated her family’s plot was surrounded by a wrought iron fence. Otherwise, we’d have had to wander a while, and my husband’s patience was not going to extend that far.

We found it pretty quickly after discovering that detail. We took a few pictures of her headstone and the family plot. I placed a rock on top of her headstone. Many people had the same idea before me, as you can see.

Emily Dickinson's Headstone

I was interested to see that her stone reads “Born Dec. 10, 1830.” That is my oldest daughter’s birthday—December 10. Then it says, “Called Back May 15, 1886.” In her last letter to her cousins, right before she died (and she knew she was dying) she wrote,

Little cousins,

Called Back.

Emily

I read that her niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi had that inscription done some time after (her original headstone had just her initials on it).

Emily Dickinson's grave

It’s hard to get a good, unobstructed picture of the headstone because of the fence.

Dickinson Plaque

I love that the plaque on the little gate in the fence describes Dickinson as a “Poetess.” One of those archaic terms one never needs to use anymore.

Dickinson's tree

There is a really nice tree growing in the corner of the Dickinson family plot. I think she’d like that very much if she knew it.

Emily and Lavinia

Emily is buried to the right of her sister Lavinia (on the end). I didn’t know much about Emily’s sister, known as “Vinnie,” until the docent shared some details. Did you know it was Vinnie who found Emily’s poems after Emily died and worked to make sure they were published? I had no idea. As you can see, some folks left stones for Vinnie, too.

Dickinson Plot

Rounding out the Dickinson family plot are the graves of Emily’s parents (both names are inscribed on the headstone that is second from left). I think the one on the end is her grandfather.

I learned a some interesting things about Emily’s writing process from the docent at the museum and even walked away with a good idea for a lesson in diction that I think my students will enjoy.

What an incredible opportunity to walk in Emily Dickinson’s footsteps and visit her!

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

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Review: Shadeland, Andrew Grace

I ordred Andrew Grace’s poetry collection Shadeland after reading his poem “Field Guide for How to Pioneer the Midwest” in the May/June 2015 issue of The Kenyon Review. What particularly struck me about that poem was the simple, relatively unadorned language that not only brought the American pioneer to life, but made him beautiful. It reminded me of stories I had heard. My ancestors living in a dugout in the Texas plains until they could build a house. My great-great-great grandmother crying when the wagon stopped for the night because she didn’t know how to do anything except have babies and look pretty. There is something about westward expansion and farming that that really captures the American spirit for me, so I was eager to delve into more of Andrew Grace’s poetry. His website describes the collection as follows:

Shadeland is not only the name of the Illinois farm on which poet Andrew Grace was raised, it is also that elusive space where language attempts to recover all that has been lost. Deeply concerned with the state of today’s rural spaces, Grace’s poems describe a landscape and a lifestyle that are both eroding.

Stylistically rangy, yet united by an ardent eye for intricate imagery, Shadeland features allusions and influences as classical as Homer, Virgil, and Hopkins while still exhibiting a poetic sensibility that is thoroughly contemporary. Employing a blend of baroque and innovative language, these 21st-century pastorals and anti-pastorals both celebrate and elegize the buckshot-peppered silos and instill cornfields that are quietly vanishing from the countryside.

I would definitely agree that the collection is stylistically rangy. Of the poems I liked best, I found myself responding most to the ones that were more like “Field Guide for How to Pioneer the Midwest.” I loved the simple “Pilgrim Sonnet,” which evoked the call to settle the west and elevated it to religious pilgrimage. I’m not so sure it really wasn’t, after reading this poem. I also liked the six-part ekphrastic poem “Dinner for Threshers” inspired by the Grant Wood painting. Possibly my favorite poem was “Z,” which captures with beautiful simplicity the death of the speaker’s father in a farming accident and connects it to “the wind from Illinois” that has shaped and destroyed. It’s really a gorgeous poem. I also really liked “The Outermost Shrine of the Narrowest Road,” “Of Love and Wild Dogs,” “Is to Say,” and “For Tityrus,” all of which I felt were beautifully direct in their language. I think after reading Roger Rosenblatt, I’m noticing the nouns and verbs and the ways in which modifiers detract rather than add. I did try re-writing “Of Love and Wild Dogs” without modifiers in my writing journal, and it has a stark effect, stripping the language in that way. It is something I think I will experiment with in my own writing—drafting it as it comes and then revising to strip the modifiers.

I found this article about Shadeland, which is the family farm that gives its name to this collection. It sounds like quite a place, and I can see why it inspired Andrew Grace. He somehow managed to capture so much about farming in America in this collection, from the promise of early settlers to the ever-shrinking endangered family farm. People have a complicated relationship with the earth, and nowhere does that seem more apparent to me than in farming, which has been a metaphor for the human struggle since Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden.

I had more or less forgotten how much I like poetry until going to the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers, and now I find myself seeking it out and wondering how I could have set it aside. Andrew Grace’s collection Shadeland was a nice re-introduction.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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