Critical Mass

Dog Days of Summer Reads: Rigoberto Gonzalez

By Rigoberto Gonzalez

Every once in a while I’m asked whether I miss “reading for fun.” Meaning, do I miss reading a book for the sheer pleasure of it, without the looming obligation of a critical review or of writing essay questions or prompts for classroom discussion? Most of the reading I do nowadays is for either my book review columns (I have two: at The El Paso Times and at Luna: A Journal of Poetry and Translation) or for curriculum development for one of the three institutions at which I teach literature and writing (Queens College, Rutgers University—Newark, and the Vermont College of Fine Arts). In brief, it's a busy reading schedule already. My response to the question is to assure the person that much of the reading I do is pleasurable, and that I tend to select books I'd want to read “for fun” anyway. So in a sense, to resort to a handy cliché, I’m killing two birds with one stone.

However, sometimes I come across a title on the bookstore shelves or even in my private library, and I'm possessed by the urge to read or reread it, no strings attached. Throughout the year I collect these books and save them for my reading in summer, when I have a three-month reprieve from the demands of the classroom at least.

As this summer comes to a close, and as I prepare to dust off my roll book for the start of the fall semester, I’d like to take stock of those few books I read “for fun.” I present them here alphabetically by author, each entry followed by a sentence or two just to pique your interest; to give any more in terms of an evaluative comment would be to defeat the purpose of distinguishing these titles from those I read for critical review. Let me just say that I highly recommend these books. I also note the genre and whether or not it was a rereading. In any case, they all gave me immense reading pleasure:

Alexander, Elizabeth. “The Black Interior.” (criticism, reread) Alexander is also one of my favorite poets, and this is an enlightening study of the creative process and how African American artists negotiate politics, history, culture and identity in both literature and art. I keep this book right next to Toni Morrison’s “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.”

Barnett, Catherine. “Into Perfect Holes Such Spheres Are Pierced.” (poetry)The title grabbed my attention, but the haunting poems in this beautiful collection are even more memorable. Informed by the untimely deaths of family members in a plane crash, this is a book of elegies, artfully constructed and powerful.

Castillo, Ana. “The Guardians.” (fiction)This is a terrific timely novel told in four compelling voices, by four people caught in the middle of one of the most politicized zones in the Americas, the U.S.-Mexico border, a place which despite nternational conflict, people still call home.

de la Mora, Sergio. “Cinemachismo: Masculinities and Sexuality in Mexican Film,” University of Texas Press, 2006. (criticism).I will read anything having to do with Mexican culture, but never have I read a more engaging and informative analysis on the history of machismo as represented in Mexican film. De la Mora is as witty as he is insightful in this highly readable study that exudes personality and that communicates the author’s love for his subject.

Isaac, Allan Punzalan. “American Tropics: Articulating Filipino America,” University of Minnesota Press, 2006. (criticism)As a reader of Filipino American literature, I take a great interest in books that give context and meaning to this incredible immigrant group and its unique relationship to U.S. imperialism. There has been much buzz in academic circles about this incredible work of scholarship and it is well deserved.

Kearney, Douglas. “Fear, Some.” Red Hen Press, 2006. (poetry)Attending a reading at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City is how I first came across this poet and this killer book of poetry, much of it very performance-based, which gestures strongly toward the experimental and cutting-edge work of Harryette Mullen.

Lalami, Laila. “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits.” Algonquin, 2005. (fiction, reread)I’m not shy about writing fan letters. And after I first read this book I tracked Lalami down and told her the following: The parallels between the stories of undocumented border crossers from Morocco and Mexico are striking! The only difference is that the journey for Moroccans is by sea, for Mexicans, by desert.

Thompson, Jean. “Throws Like a Girl.” (fiction)I first heard Jean Thompson read the fabulous story “Pie of the Month” at a book festival in Illinois about two years ago. So when this collection was released, I immediately ran out to get it. I loved rereading “Pie of the Month,” one the most original anti-war stories I’ve ever come across. The other eleven stories are just as amazing.

Vasquez, Diego. “Growing Through the Ugly.” (fiction, reread)The concept alone is a stunner: the entire novel is told through the “consciousness” of a corpse in a body bag getting flown back from Viet Nam. It's trying to piece itself back together after having its memory shattered by the war.

–NBCC Board Member Rigoberto Gonzalez