Long Way Down – 5/5
To paraphrase Jason Reynolds in an interview he gives at the end of the book, this is a combination of “Boyz in the Hood” and “A Christmas Carol.” As with other Jason Reynolds novels, there’s a central conflict between what a character feels is the right thing to do based on his lived experience, the implicit messages that happen around him, the images, his history, and lots of other coded and secretive influences versus the on the paper ethics of the “RIGHT THING”. From this conflict do we get out story here as well. Our narrator has just found out that his brother has been killed. Based on the the rules he understands about the world, even though he knows who did it, he can’t go to the police, so Will decides he has to take his dead uncle’s gun and kill his brother’s killer. As he presses the elevator button, as he descends each floor, he is visited by an apparition, a ghost, of someone long dead from these exact same rules: No Crying, No Snitching, and Revenge. Each visitor reminds him of these rules, but also complicates his understanding of the whole story, telling him things he didn’t know, sharing their wisdom beyond the grave, or holding a mirror up to his own failures or misunderstandings about the world.
The entire novel is told in verse, and for this book it’s a kind of perfect experience for what’s happening. It wouldn’t be as powerful to use straight prose and the scattered nature of Will’s thoughts and conflict lends itself perfectly to the form.
Also, if you can, the audiobook is read by Jason Reynolds, so you get the precise tone and pacing that he wrote into the poems. In addition, you are treated to a brief interview about his vision and inspiration for the story. As a teacher who spent years working in inner-city schools, this world is familiar to me from an sympathetic outsider’s perspective. This book gives more insight into that part I can’t quite grasp from my own lived experience.
Girl, Interrupted – 4/5
So I have never seen this movie and don’t have that kind of middle school crush on this book that a lot of people my age do. It’s a really powerful book in a lot of ways because it’s so fractured and so curated instead of purely told. A “volunteer” entry into a psychiatric ward starts this memoir off. Even memoir is not quite right because it’s punctuated not only by the story itself but by her admittance charts, her periodic check ups, and a lengthy entry from the DSM III about her diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, a disorder she a) didn’t read for 25 years after her leaving the hospital and b) wasn’t called that when she was given it.
So the basic premise of this book, if you don’t know, is a kind of thematic journal/diary of 19 year old Susanna Kaysen’s time in a psychiatric hospital in the late 1960s. She relates this stay to the political milieu of 1960s America at the time, but if the movie (trailer) painted this as a rebellious book, it’s not exactly. Instead, it’s a kind of cold and clinical book, that’s also full of life. It’s a lived memoir with clear precision in the writing of the experience, and it contributes to the wider collection of writing about mental illness in a few key ways. One, it’s a narration of “insanity” to use her terms and to try to account for that experience can entail. Too often the writers who do try to narrate this experience don’t actually know it and so it comes off false or condescending. Two, it’s a narration of institutionalization of mental illness. This is an additionally important feature because one needn’t have been “insane” to be in such a place. Three, it’s a catalog more than a story. This is good because it makes the whole thing easier to take, but also to comprehend.
HWuthering Heights – 3/5 –
This book is such a drag for me. I have read it three times and really, if I am being honest I have “read” it three times. I keep getting to a certain point….right to the end of section and just stop caring. I am not sure why. But then I skim to the end. It’s such a touchstone book for a lot of people and I really do like a lot of otherwise similar books but something about it just feels really unpleasant for me.
It’s interesting to me though to try to think about it as a product in its time. I don’t mean a product of its own time, even though it is that, but what it must be like to read this book as it’s coming out in 1848 or so. What was the lived reading experience of this book, you know? Like what did thinking back about 1800 feel like in 1848? For me thinking back fifty years ago….1967….that doesn’t seem so long ago does it? But it also does. Anyway, sigh.
Here’s Peep Show to play me out:
Faces in the Water – 4/5 Stars
Janet Frame tips her hand about a third the way through this novel. She writes: “There is an aspect of madness which is seldom mentioned in fiction because it would damage the romantic popular idea of the insane as a person whose speech appeals as immediately poetic; but it is seldom the east Opheliana recited like pages of a seed catalog or the outpourings of Crazy Janes who provide, in fiction, an outlet for poetic abandon. Few of the people who roamed the dayroom would have qualified as acceptable heroines, in popular taste; few were charminginly uninhibited eccentrics. The mass provoke mostly irritation hostility and impatience. Their behavior affronted, caused uneasiness; they wept and moaned; they quarreled and complained. They were a nuisance and were treated as such. It was forgotten that they too possessed a prized humanity which needed care and love, that a tiny poetic essence could be distilled from their overflowing squalid truth.”
I found this novel in the same little free library as “Girl, Interrupted” and like me, it seems like someone had themselves a time reading about incarcerated female psych patients. That memoir was characterized by a kind of listless vignette style punctuated by psych reports and very little cohesive narrative, while this novel focused so heavily on a narrative without plot, that an equally interesting cohesion resulted. While that book created the fractured reality and chapterless sense of time, this one had us understand the monotony and especially the monotony created by the dulled senses under drugs and E.C.T. This is more of a novel in that sense, and deeply compelling, but really shows the slow dripping of time. It unromanticizes insanity.