“A Wreath for Emmett Till” by Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Philippe Lardy

This slim book of poetry was a surprise. At first, because it looks like a child’s picture book. Later, because of the poetry itself.

The name Emmett Till was vaguely familiar, but sadly, not enough to have been able to say who he was. The book description, above, has a short version of his story, for more, I offer you Wikipedia. As I write this, we are 5 days past the murders of 9 African Americans in a church, in a state that still flies the Confederate Battle Flag over its capitol building. Till’s death was a pretty key moment in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Without going too much further into this rabbit hole, it’s pretty clear that Emmett’s story is still relevant today.

Setting aside the content of the poetry for a moment, the sheer technical artistry of this book made me gasp out loud at one point. It is structured as a heroic crown of sonnets: fifteen interlinked sonnets (a sonnet is a 14 line rhyming poem in iambic pentameter). A crown of sonnets are connected by their first and last lines: the last line of a poem becomes the first line of the next poem, sometimes with slight alteration. A heroic crown takes this one step further: the 15th poem is made up of the first lines of all of the poems. And! The first letters of those first lines in that final poem, spell out RIP EMMETT TILL.

I think that what amazes me about good poetry is the adherence to such specific rules,  in a way that the rules become invisible, the words don’t feel shoehorned into the pattern, they were meant to be there, in that particular structure.

I read this book several weeks ago. I was looking through it just now to refresh my memory about the content. I’m going to include one of the poems without further comment, because I find myself unable to add anything else.

Mutilated boy martyr, if I could,

I’d put you in a parallel universe,
give you a better fate. There is none worse.
I’d let you live through a happy boyhood,
let your gifts bloom into a livelihood
on a planet that didn’t bear Cain’s curse.
I’d put you in a nice, safe universe,
not like this one. A universe where you’d
surpass your mother’s dreams. But parallel
realities may have terrorists, too.
Evil multiples to infinitude,
like mirrors facing each other in hell.
You were a wormhole history passed through,
transformed by the memory of your victimhood.

 

Marilyn Nelson

 

Source: Nelson, Marilyn. A Wreath for Emmett Till. Houghton Mifflin, 2005

 

“Looking For Alaska” by John Green

I first read this book in 2011. This was the “review” I posted to Goodreads:

I just don’t really have the words for this one. Such a good book. I was bawling over my Cheerios the other day.

Because I had read the book already, the emotional impact wasn’t quite as strong the second time through. You’ll note in the book description that it refers to BEFORE and AFTER, and I’ll admit that as the THING that happens got closer (you can tell, because Miles counts down how many days BEFORE), I read more slowly, and had to put it down for a day or so before I could read through and keep going.

I’m a big John Green fan, so I’m predisposed to like anything he does. I had a harder time with this book, the second time through, though, because my own teenage boys will be juniors in high school in the fall, and as a parent, I can’t help but be horrified by the drinking and smoking and sex that was going on. I want to stick my fingers in my ears and close my eyes and sing really loud and pretend it doesn’t exist.

And it’s hard to write about a book when you have your eyes closed and ears plugged with your fingers. Avoiding this post has stopped me from writing about any of the other books I’ve read — the project was not only to read the books, but to reflect on them. Most of the time, I don’t feel quite up to the task about writing about the really good books, the ones with sentences and paragraphs and chapters that take your breath away.

So, after more. than a week of having read this and trying to say something, I’m going to leave this incoherent mess and move on.

“I Am the Messenger” by Markus Zusak

I have a copy of Zusak’s book “The Book Thief” sitting on my bookshelf. I bounced off it when I tried it awhile back, and have always meant to try again (I guess that’ll come true here after a few more books….). Having bounced off a previous book, I approached this one with trepidation.

I was fearful for absolutely no good reason because I loved this book. It has that fairy tale quality that appeals to me so much. Was it real or wasn’t it? Does it really matter?

I’ve been thinking for more than a week about what to say when I write about this book, adn I still haven’t come up with anything very good that might express why I think someone else should read this. “Because you should” isn’t very compelling.

The intricate plotting, the lovely language, the likeable characters (who are definitely not perfect…), and the powerful message of doing good, even if the good things is as simple as a buying someone an ice cream cone: all of this combine (with lots of other awesome bits) to make up what I loved about this book. So go read it, because you should.

“how i live now” by Meg Rosoff

This one started off a little rough for me — run-on sentences, fragments, a young teen just spilling her guts on the page. I was worried it was going to be a slog to get through an entire novel like that. Luckily, though, after awhile, my awareness of the style (which, I later figured out was purposeful, of course…) slipped away. I got drawn in to Daisy’s story and couldn’t put it down.

Eventually, as Daisy is forced to grow up, her voice matured (as voices tend to do, I guess). And at the end, when it switches to a number of years later, the “voice” was completely grown up.

The premise of the book was fascinating. There is a war going on, and Daisy and her cousins (that she’s just been sent to live with) are left without adult supervision. But at the time and even later, when Daisy is grown up, it is never clear who the enemy was. Or why they were fighting. Or what they wanted. Or even for sure how it all ended.

In some ways, that’s what made it all the scarier for me. How often do you hear stuff on the news and come away wondering if you ever really understand why this or that is happening and what it really  means to you, personally? I know I often listen to then news and hear Charlie Brown’s Teacher. I know they are saying words, but it doesn’t seem to be anything that makes actual sense.

Some reviews were unhappy with or offended by the relationship between Daisy and her first cousin Edmund. My first reaction to those reviewers was ….. good grief….get off your high horse…….On reflection, though, it’s not my place to judge what squicks out another reader.  My problem with those readers would only come if they then try to use that opinion to keep others from reading.

Repeat after me: “not for me doesn’t equal this is bad.”

Personally, I didn’t find their relationship problematic. I’m not sure I can picture anyone I know falling for their first cousin, but I know that it isn’t completely unusual. These first cousins are teenagers when they first meet and who are thrown together in extremely unusual circumstances. And nothing is explicit on the page, this is YA after all.

And really, their relationship informed the whole story. For me, it worked. Even now, several days after I read it, I’m still thinking about Daisy and Edmund as characters, as well as the actual mechanics of how this was written, the style shift I mention above. The more I think about this one, the more I’m glad this project gave me the chance to read it.

“The House of the Scorpion” by Nancy Farmer

Holy cow that was good.

This book has come up on lists as a recommendation for me for various reasons: “because you read” type lists — and every time I have read the blurb and thought “MEH.”

Wow. Should have believed the hype on this one, because I loved this book. LOVED it.

It had such an interesting dystopian view of the future — and even 15 years after it was published, the future envisioned by this book seems very plausible.

It was also very much a page turner! I think a kid (or adult….) that just wants a good tale to lose themselves in will love it, but there’s a lot more to dig in to, as well. Politics, technology, cloning, social and class systems, medical ethics, climate change…

There’s a sequel. It’s on my to be read list. I need school to be over so I can just read all day long. Every day.