Bookclub Review: “The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Around the World”, in which we each picked a continent and had to match a book that takes place there and/or is written by an author from that continent or of that continent’s descent.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext” by Felicia Rose Chavez (Ed.), José Olivarez (Ed.), and Willie Perdomo (Ed.)

Publishing Info: Haymarket Books, April 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Continent: North America

Book Description: In the dynamic tradition of the BreakBeat Poets anthology, The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT celebrates the embodied narratives of Latinidad. Poets speak from an array of nationalities, genders, sexualities, races, and writing styles, staking a claim to our cultural and civic space. Like Hip-Hop, we honor what was, what is, and what’s next.

Kate’s Thoughts

So in the song “The Great Imposter”, there is the (much condensed down and cherry picked) line ‘Poetry, so sweet…..’. And reader, I do not feel this way towards poetry. There are a few flickers of poetry that I’ve enjoyed over the years. I love me some Poe, and Dickinson, and the poem “The Second Coming” by Yeats, as well as the occasional book in verse (Jason Reynolds in particular is a favorite of mine). But as a rule it’s really not my cup of tea. So when book club decided to do poetry with “The BreakBeat Poets Vol.4: LatiNext”, I was hesitant. I also, however, like to be game for whatever my dear friends may pick so I got it and dove in. I’m happy to report that I did not hate it, not even a little bit. This may sound like a back handed compliment, but I assure you, it’s not.

There were actually a number of poems from this collection that I greatly enjoyed. If you look at the commonalities between the various poems and poets that I cited above, if you give me something dark, I will probably be more into it, so the poems that really struck a chord with me in this book were those that addressed hard topics, like death, sadness, and despair. I wholeheartedly admit that the optics of that are not very good within the context of this collection, but at least I can say that that’s generally what’s going to get me on board with poetry. All that said, I really liked the mission of this collection, highlighting Latinx voices within the American and Latinidad experiences. These range from the political to the tongue in cheek to the joyful to the sorrowful, and I think that it does a great job of introducing new ideas of what poetry is and what it can be for different people.

But, at the end of the day, it’s still poetry. Serena will expand on this a bit more, but I do think that it went on a bit long. This may be because the way that it was sectioned, as the darker things were all at the front of the collection as opposed to spaced out. I didn’t mind the structure, as I like things being themed and categorized, but for someone like me who has ideas as to what kind of poetry she does and doesn’t like, it made me skim more and more the further along we got. I can’t really say if this is a failing in the poets, as they probably weren’t going to resonate with me because it’s poetry, but I do think that it suffered from some bloat. I totally get why bloat would happen here, wanting to give voice and representation to so many different possibilities. But it’s still a bit bloated.

All in all, there were some things here that I really liked. I don’t think that I will look into more of the collections that The BreakBeat Poets have done, but if you do like the genre, check it out. It may resonate more with you than it did with me.

Serena’s Thoughts

Back in college, oh so long ago, it was a close call when choosing majors between English Literature or English Writing (yes, there are multiple options for important topics like English!). The main case for the English Writing route was my love for the poetry classes and professors. I ended up going the Literature route, but was one of those “loves school a bit too much” dummies who still signed up to take the Capstone course for both routes. You know, why not take the highest level course for a education route you’re not even majoring in?? Anyways, long story short, I took that class because I loved reading and writing poetry that much. All of this to say, I’m a bit of a poetry snob, and it’s not really something I’m proud of, but there it is.

With that background, I often find reading poetry for fun rather challenging. I really, really enjoy great poetry, but I’m also extremely picky about what I think constitutes great poetry. For me, it’s the culmination of topics, language choice, and some simple beauty that is hard to describe but comes across like a great painting in that you know it but have a hard time saying why it’s great. After reading this book, I’d say there were a good handful of poems that really worked for me with these criteria. But there were also a good number that didn’t.

The challenge of this collection is both its strength and what I think ultimately got in the way of its being truly great. It’s so important to highlight diverse poetry and poets, and there’s a wealth of history, stories, and experiences that the Latinx community brings to the table. Some of my favorite poems spoke to some of the expected topics like immigration challenges as well as some of the smaller experiences that we might not immediately think of, like how the continued mispronunciation of one’s name can impact one’s life.

The other side of this coin, however, is that there is JUST SO MUCH to cover. Latinx covers a huge swath of cultures and countries, some speaking to their experiences in their native lands, others speaking to their experiences as Americans with Latinx heritage. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and it’s pretty clear that the editors were overwhelmed by trying to cover all their bases. It’s an impossible task to start out with, and one that I think ultimately bogged down this collection. There were a number of poems that just didn’t work for me. They weren’t bad, per se, but I also felt that they weren’t as powerful as some of the others. And in a collection that begins to feel bloated at around the 50% marker, weaker poems do more damage in hiding the truly good ones than any value they add on their own.

That said, I still really like the general approach of these poetry collections and am curious to look into the ones that came before this.

Kate’s Rating 6: A unique and at times quite powerful collection of voices not seen as much in poetry. But it’s still poetry, nonetheless, and therefore not really my jam.

Serena’s Rating 6: Some really great poems highlighting lesser known experiences and topics were at times hidden in a collection that was a bit over-sized.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the section structure of this collection?
  2. Did you have a favorite poem? What about it stood out to you?
  3. What topics did you feel were well addressed in this collection, and what topics did you want to have more focus?
  4. How did this poetry collection compare to other collections you have read in the past?
  5. What do you think the next BreakBeats Poetry Collection will be?

Reader’s Advisory

“The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext” is included on the Goodreads lists “2020 Poetry Books By Authors of Color”, and “Stephen’s Multicultural and Anti-Racist Reading List”.

Find “The BreakBeat Poets Vol.4: LatiNext” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Sorcerer to the Crown” by Zen Cho

Serena’s Review: “Finding Baba Yaga”

39680799Book: “Finding Baba Yaga” by Jane Yolen

Publication Info: Tor.com, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Netgalley!

Book Description:

You think you know this story.
You do not.

A harsh, controlling father. A quiescent mother. A house that feels like anything but a home. Natasha gathers the strength to leave, and comes upon a little house in the wood: A house that walks about on chicken feet and is inhabited by a fairy tale witch. In finding Baba Yaga, Natasha finds her voice, her power, herself….

Review: I don’t read a lot of novels in verse, but I’ve been a fan of Jane Yolen for quite a while. Pair that with a Baba Yaga story, and I’m in! This was a quick read, and while it took me a bit to really feel invested in the story, in the end, I really enjoyed this interpretation of Baba Yaga and the writing decisions behind presenting it as a story in verse.

The story follow Natasha, a girl running from a very unhappy home. As the cover of the book so beautifully depicts, she makes her way into the woods where she finds a certain house walking about on chicken feet. From there, the modern setting from which Natasha came mixes with the fairytale version of Baba Yaga that readers are more familiar with.

There are a bunch of incredibly strong themes in this book. Natasha, coming from a bordering on abusive home, travels an intense journey of self-discovery throughout the story. Through her, we see the struggles that face those who live in shut-down families, like the challenges to not only find one’s own voice, but even to give validation to one’s own thoughts as valid and worthy of expression. In her “new life,” she must not only tackle these growth areas, but deals with both sides of the emotional coin in loss and love. There’s also a very nice through-line about found families and the strength of connections that can be forged between two individuals who, outwardly, have nothing connecting them.

I also very much enjoyed the poetic style of the book. Like I said, I don’t read a lot of novels in verse. If anything, I’m more likely to pick up a collection of poetry than I am to read a book like this. In the past, I’ve often struggled to feel truly connected to a story that reads like a novel but is told through such a reduced number of words and often presented in challenging formats on the page itself. Maybe this comes from too many poetry classes, but I’m often so distracted trying to analyze line breaks and why a certain piece was laid out on the page the way it was and what that says about the content to maintain a consistent connection with the ongoing story.

I had the same problem with this story, but about halfway through, I was able to get more fully into the action. I think this slow dive in also had to do with the way that Yolen tells her story. Things aren’t all simply revealed from the beginning. Instead, we’re slowly introduced to who Natasha really is, what her life has been, and how the events she’s currently experiencing connects to it all.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s a very short read (not only page count, but word count), so readers are likely going to be able to finish it in one setting. If you’re skeptical about novels in verse, I’d also say that this might be a good introductory piece, especially if you have an interest in fairytales and Baba Yaga in particular (I didn’t get into her much, but I really enjoyed Yolen’s interpretation of this classic character as well!). And, of course, fans of Yolen’s work will not be disappointed by this new entry.

Rating 8: Though it starts slow, the style of the story adds power to the deeper themes it is presenting throughout, such as self-discovery and finding one’s own power in the world.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Finding Baba Yaga” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many relevant lists. But it should be on “Novels in Verse.”

Find “Finding Baba Yaga” at your library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “Long Way Down”

22552026We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds

Publishing Info: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, October 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: Kate owns an ARC, Serena got it from the library!

A-Side Book: “Ghost” by Jason Reynolds

Book Description: 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.

Serena’s Thoughts

Thank god for bookclub! It’s books like this that remind me how lucky I am to be in a club with such a great group of ladies who love to read and know their stuff about what’s out there. The only other Jason Reynolds book I read was for bookclub (was great), but per my norm, since he writes the type of fiction that I don’t usually pursue on my own, it’s likely I would have missed out on this great read as well.

During our meeting, there was a persistent theme of us all having read it in one sitting (most of us the very day of bookclub, my bad!) due to the story being written in verse. But this decision was so much more than a device that made the book quick to read! Reynolds masterfully binds together all the strengths that can be gleaned from versed-novels, while deftly avoiding some of the pitfalls, such as melodrama and pretentiousness.

Instead, the limited number of words created an almost claustrophobic atmosphere that mirrored Will’s journey down the elevator. From page to page, the words would be laid out differently across the page, sometimes mimicking the topic that was being discussed, such as a jagged splatter of words about an earthquake and a question mark shape drawn in words themselves. The line breaks, and even page turns, were also effective in giving weight to moments and certain words, leaving them to fall hard on the unsuspecting reader.

Beyond the style of the book, Reynolds tackles a tough and nuanced topic in his exploration of gun violence in a poor, black neighborhood. His story is a frank reveal of the limited choices and persistent cycles that exists, without casting judgement or freeing characters from the responsibility of their actions. Again, the decision to write in verse just further supported this exploration. As the number of words are limited, Reynolds’ language is precise, clear, and devastating.

My only criticism is with the very end, and even there, I’m not entirely sure how I feel. I like the ambiguousness, but I also feel like it wrapped up rather suddenly. However, I also don’t know how else a story like this could have been finished, and the ending itself speaks to the limited and challenging options available in these communities.

Kate’s Thoughts

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Jason Reynolds while at ALA’s Annual Conference in 2017, and when I met him I got an ARC of “Long Way Down”. I hadn’t known what to expect from that book, but I knew that the concept sounded very intriguing to me. When I finally opened it up a couple months later I was pretty much blown away. I hadn’t expected to be as taken with the book, only because it’s written in verse and DAMN am I not a poetry fan. But I read it one sitting and said ‘wow’ as I set it down at the end. So when we did the B-Sides theme, I KNEW that I needed to pick “Long Way Down”.

Will is a character that the reader can instantly relate to, even if your circumstances don’t match his. He’s a person who has just suffered a great personal loss, and his grief, rage, and helplessness are pushing him towards making a huge mistake: shooting the man who he thinks killed his brother Shawn. As mentioned, this entire story, from his brother’s murder to the aftermath to Will’s experiences in the elevator, is told in poetry form. The poems split up the story into little segments, and you get the full span of anger and deep grief that Will is experiencing. Even though I don’t like poetry, it’s use in this book is incredibly evocative, and in some ways makes it more powerful because of the way Reynolds structures each poem. You know that Will is a boy who deeply loves his brother, and is within a community where cycles of violence can affect, and embitter, anyone.

I also really appreciate the way that Reynolds shows the different victims of gun violence in Will’s life, from his brother to his father to his uncle to a childhood friend. They all have different scenarios that led to their deaths, some because of a direct choice, and others because of sheer circumstance and randomness. The one that hits the hardest is that of Dani, a girl who was friends with Will when they were eight, and who died because of a stray bullet meant for someone else. But that isn’t to say that Reynolds makes any of the other victims less of a victim by including her, no matter what choices they may have made. As Serena mentioned above, Reynolds shows that they are all victims in one way or another, be it victims of gun violence of victims of a society that has forgotten about them. There are lots of greys in this book, and, as Serena mentioned, lots of ambiguity, and I think that given that life is filled with greys it hits the point home.

Reading “Long Way Down” for the second time cemented it as one of my favorite YA books as of late, and Jason Reynolds is a master who is telling stories that really need to be told. I can’t wait to see what else he brings to the literary world.

Serena’s Rating 10: I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was beautiful and soul-crushing, and provided a clear-eyed look into the gun violence that exists in so many of our cities today.

Kate’s Rating 10: A powerful and emotional story about grief, loss, helplessness, and rage, “Long Way Down” makes the reader confront a very dark reality about life for some people living in America today.

Book Club Questions:

  1. This story was written in verse. How do you think this affected the story that was being told?
  2. Each page was laid out in a different way with a different structure. Was there a particular one that stood out to you? Why?
  3. Of the individuals that Will meets in the elevator, was there one whose story stood out for you? Why?
  4. This book tackles some challenging issues surrounding race, poverty, gun violence, and the police force. Were there any moments that stood out to you as presenting a new way of looking at these issues? Are there any aspects that you wish could have been explored more?
  5. The ending of this story is ambiguous. What do you think happens next and why?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Long Way Down” is on these Goodreads lists: “Black Lives Matter Library Ideas” and “Novels in Verse.”

Find “Long Way Down” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Pick: “Six of Crows” by Leigh Bardugo