392 Jimmy’s Blues

jimmysblues (1)by James Baldwin, 1983

Why is James Baldwin good at everything??? I was a little skeptical coming into this poetry collection, partially because I don’t tend to love poetry and partially because I had my doubts that this writer who gained fame based on his essays and novels could take those same ideas and translate them to verse. But, he did, and I’m just as floored as I ever am when I read one of Baldwin’s many stirring works.

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384 Devotions

devotionsby Mary Oliver, 2017

Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: Read a book of nature poems.

When this task for the Read Harder Challenge appeared, I knew immediately that I was going to choose something by Mary Oliver. I remember hearing Rebecca extol the virtues of her poetry in several episodes of All the Books, and while I’m not much of a poetry reader myself, I admit to having my interest piqued. Devotions is a 450-page compendium of Oliver’s work throughout her career. Curated by Oliver herself, the poems take the reader in reverse chronological order through the author’s writings, starting from her latest collection of poems, Felicity, published in 2015, all the way to her first book of poetry, No Voyage and Other Poems, published in the 1960s. The book is divided up into parts that offer a few selections from each of her works. The result is a hefty volume that’s sure to please any one of Oliver’s fans. On the other hand, I’m not so sure it was the best place for a newcomer to begin.

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326 Citizen

citizenby Claudia Rankine, 2014

If you highlight everything in a book, does that mean everything’s important or does everything cease to be important? This is the question I found myself asking while reading Citizen, a collection of prose poems on the black experience in America. So much of it is so relevant, so timely, so urgent, that I had trouble deciding what really stood out. In essence, everything about this collection stands out. The poems herein are not just about the macroaggressions against black Americans–though there is that–but also about the microaggressions that remind us every day that we are other. It is a poignant piece for our times, and it is one that I’m sure will withstand history to become a part of the literary canon

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315 Long Way Down

longwaydownby Jason Reynolds, 2017

Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: Read an audiobook of poetry.

Fifteen-year-old Will is beholden to “the rules,” ones that tell him three things: No crying, no snitching, and revenge. These have become ever more relevant in Will’s mind as he finds himself on the cusp of enacting rule #3 two days after the murder of his older brother Shawn. Gun in hand, certain that he knows who the perpetrator is, Will enters the elevator of his apartment building and presses the button labeled “L.” What he never expects is that, over the course of a minute, he will be visited by a number of those who have been similarly affected by “the rules,” have taken lives and have had their own lives taken by trying to adhere to this demand. It will be the longest and, likely, most important sixty seconds in young Will’s life.

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273 Don’t Call Us Dead

dontcallusdeadby Danez Smith, 2017

Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: A collection of poetry published since 2014.

I’ve been wanting to read this poetry collection since it was shortlisted for the National Book Award in 2017. The cover is just so striking, the dark bodies against the pristine, white background, one floating up as if to heaven, but holding onto a balloon, child-like, the nudity that is evident but not sexualized. I just really wanted to know what sort of poetry a cover like that could represent. It turns out that the contents are just as remarkable as the image that precedes them.

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269 Brown Girl Dreaming

browngirldreamingby Jacqueline Woodson, 2014

Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: A children’s or middle grade book (not YA) that has won a diversity award since 2009.

I’ve heard many laudatory things about Jacqueline Woodson’s work for some time, but, as often goes, I never quite made the time to pick up one of her books. This Read Harder Challenge task gave me the push I needed, and I’m so glad it did. Having won the Coretta Scott King Author Award in 2015, and the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2014, as well as the John Newbery Medal in 2015, Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir in verse, containing stories from the author’s childhood growing up in both the northern and southern parts of the country during the civil rights era. The poems are incredibly easy to read, but they are thick with meaning, offering those of us who were born many years later (or those of different races) a unique window into life as a black child when being black denoted membership to a de facto second class.

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178 Ozone Journal

ozonejournalby Peter Balakian, 2015

Um, well, I guess I don’t understand poetry after all. Having read a couple of collections of poetry in the past year, I started to think that perhaps it was my assumption that I didn’t understand poetry that was holding me back and not an actual inability to understand poetry. Even if I didn’t fully comprehend everything about those two collections, I was not deterred, as I kept in mind the fact that I don’t grasp everything in every book I read and that has never stopped me from reading more. This isn’t to say that I’ve run up against one difficult collection of poetry and I’m now throwing in the towel, but this Pulitzer Prize-winner certainly had me scratching my head and questioning my ability to recognize when something is good and when it is not.

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149 The Performance of Becoming Human

performanceby Daniel Borzutzky, 2016

Part of the problem with loving books is that when you religiously read book blogs, listen to book podcasts on your runs, and watch booktube videos before going to bed at night, you end up with a lot of books that you want to read. And sometimes – let’s be honest, a lot of the time – you get distracted from what you want to read in the long term by the shiny new book you MUST READ RIGHT NOW. I’m not a huge fan of planning out everything I read, but I’ve found the Read Harder Challenge has been pretty good at getting me to read books that have languished on my TBR. I’ll say the same for my Year of Toni Morrison challenge – even though I’m spending the last quarter of the year catching up with her, I’m really quite delighted that I decided to do this. So, all of this is to say that I’ve decided I want to make more of an effort to read each year’s prize-winning books (from 2016 on). This decision is how I came to find myself reading this National Book Award-winning collection of poetry.

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112 The Forbidden: Poems from Iran and its Exiles

The Forbidden: Poems from Iran and Its Exilesby Sholeh Wolpé, ed., 2012

“Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love,” has got to be one of the hardest Read Harder tasks I’ve come across. Not only is the task itself out of my normal reading parameters, but I also decided that poetry collections in Spanish, of which I found many suggestions, wouldn’t count (because I can read Spanish), nor would my initial idea to read The Aeneid (because it is an epic poem, which is not the same as a collection). I tossed around the idea of reading some Rilke or some Baudelaire, but neither of them appealed to me – I wanted something a bit more modern and bit less, um, dead white male. Lo and behold, while exploring some of Melissa’s suggestions, I stumbled upon The Forbidden: Poems from Iran and its Exiles. Featuring a mix of poets writing about the Iran, Islam, politics, and revolution, it fulfilled everything I could have asked for while also addressing a topic of which I am still woefully ignorant. Bonus: it was available at my library.

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