Criticism & Features



By Rigoberto Gonzalez


Many writers and/or readers, I’m certain, will identify with one of my burdens: during the holidays, members of my family think it’s easy to shop for me–books (any books) or blank journals. And if you’re like me, you’ve got a discriminating taste as well–there are certain types of books we prefer, right?–and when was the last time you wrote in a journal? For me it was high school. Freshman English class. I had to. I hated it.


But ‘tis the season for shopping shenanigans and mistletoe mishaps, and instead of rolling my eyes at gifts I’ll probably re-gift unread, I’d like to highlight a few noteworthy titles that came through my desk in 2009, and which I couldn’t resist picking up right away because I’m the type of reader that welcomes books that are insightful, engaging and above all, provocative:


1. Anatolia and Other Stories, Anis Shivani, Black Lawrence Press.


After the 2008 release of Nam Le’s critically-acclaimed story collection, The Boat, I didn’t think anyone could replicate that daring and convincing range of nationalities until I picked up this collection. It's inhabited by a series of courageous and ill-fated characters navigating through cultural and class collisions in such charged locations as Dubai, Tehran, and the U.S. during the internment of Americans of Japanese descent. What results is a disconcerting portrait of the world in crisis–a world that insists on repeating the mistakes of its colonial and imperial past.   


2. Beauty Breaks In, Mary Ann Samyn, New Issues Press.


Perhaps one of the most critically underrated poets, Samyn has nonetheless a large following of devoted readers who seek out her gorgeous lines (“Tonight’s moon is one way a sorrow earns its keep.”). The poems are arranged alphabetically by title (hence inspiring my own list here) but her book takes the reader through an emotionally-charged journey from betrayal to confusion to forgiveness–no matter how deep or dark the well of loneliness, beauty breaks in.   


3. Girl in a Library, Kelly Cherry, BkMk Press.


Though at first the title appealed to the bookworm in me, this gorgeous collection of essays is full of stunning articulations about the writer’s relationship to writing (which changes as the political climate changes), to other women writers (from those who inspire to those who provoke), to the varied encounters and revelations that shape an artist’s education. Cherry’s own writing is so honest and unpretentious, so level-headed and curious, that it offers what it set out to do: create a portrait of the imagination.


4. Sugarless, James Magruder, University of Wisconsin Press.


The story of Rick Lahrem, a high school student and budding Broadway queen living just outside of Chicago is one filled with the hard-won joys of adolescence: he’s coming out, he’s finding his theatrical avenue for self-expression, and he’s even falling in love. But it’s the 1970s in the suburbs, and Rick’s flair for show tunes has his mother reaching for the curative powers of religion. What’s a boy to do? Sugarless, at turns hilarious, at turns touching and poignant, is a novel that reminds us that no matter who, no matter where, growing up is fabulous and queer.


5. Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone, Matthew Shenoda, Boa Editions, Ltd.


No poet exercises the healing powers of poetry like Shenoda, whose verse reads like prayer, incantation–the soothing words of hope to mend a damaged world. In this book, the Coptic Egyptian poet returns to his cultural roots and the legacy of strength so necessary to confront the hostilities against entire communities because of language, nationhood or religion.   


6. Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, Sarah Schulman, The New Press.


Dangerous times require revolutionary solutions, and Schulman (who recently delivered the David R. Kessler Lecture at CUNY’s Graduate Center on the topic) makes powerful suggestions about how to battle a social disease from one of its starting points–the home. But the more provocative moments come in the discussion of its consequences and how certain harmful dynamics are replicated within the LGBT community. Daring, radical and compelling, this book is the ultimate queer activist handbook.    


7. Weapons Grade, Terese Svoboda, The University of Arkansas Press. 


The versatile Svoboda (who last year published Black Glasses Like Clark Kent–an amazing exploration of her uncle’s suicide and his military past) takes a righteous step into the land mines of political poetry. She tackles such weighty subjects as war crimes, environmental concerns, third-world sweatshops and America’s loss of freedoms in this tough-minded collection of poems that sets the stage for the final section of the book–poems about the irreconcilable conflicts between family members who dwell within an emotionally desensitized and dysfunctional society.


8. Women of Color and Feminism, Maythee Rojas, Seal Press.


In the age of a Wise Latina on the Supreme Court and an African American First Lady in the White House–you gotta love 2009 for Sonia Sotomayor alone!–feminist scholar Maythee Rojas breaks down the complexities of this space of being (the intersection between race and gender) that’s also perceived as a threatening conflict zone. In clear, accessible language, Rojas walks us through the expressive, artistic, mythic, cultural and sexualized representations of women of color, humanizing them one chapter at a time.    


9. World Ball Notebook, Sesshu Foster, City Lights Books.


Ever inventive, Foster doesn’t call these 118 entries poems, he calls them games, as in the Mesoamerican sport that’s played with a stone ball–all the more challenging, all the more fragile. Just like in his satyrical novel Atomik Aztex, in which he created a parallel universe in which the Aztecs were not conquered by the Spaniards, the playing field of World Ball Notebook–where conflict and corruption reign supreme–begins to look startlingly and comfortably familiar.