Walking Home: Growing up Hispanic in Houston is a mixed-genre memoir in which Sarah Cortez explores, as the title suggests, the early years of her life in that city. The vivid and frank poems of the second half of the collection—sparkling with scattered epiphanies from childhood, adolescence and college years—are balanced by the striking prose section with which the volume opens: a series of lyrical pieces that use the colors of the stained-glass Annunciation window at a Houston chapel as a point of departure for the poet’s voyage through what might have been. These dreams are deeply affecting: her mother’s yearning for many children (she would lose all but one), her father’s proud vision of the son he is not fated to raise, Cortez’s own gender-defying hopes of being a soldier. Streaming through the colored filter of these alternative realities, poems like “Surf Fishing” and “Baycliff” grow more textured as we watch the poet assume the place of the dreamt-of son; the mother’s work as a teacher in “The Gift” resonates poignantly; the poet’s struggles with identity, ethnicity and sexuality are beautifully informed by this masterful technique of exploring unfulfilled dreams....more
TOP SHELF review. First appeared in the January, 24, 2013 edition of The Monitor
The Unbearable Lightness of Valium and OCD
Gregory Sherl’s poetry is stTOP SHELF review. First appeared in the January, 24, 2013 edition of The Monitor
The Unbearable Lightness of Valium and OCD
Gregory Sherl’s poetry is startling, full of disjointed, exciting and heartbreaking images. Distilling vulnerability, depression, sexuality and ennui, his chapbooks and collections give poignant voice to a whole generation of pop-culture-obsessed, cereal-swilling, unmoored young men. Critics have begun to sit up and take notice.
In his latest collection, Monogamy Songs, Sherl narrates through loosely connected prose poetry the clearly autobiographical relationship between “Greg” and “Z,” two broken souls who come together amid psychoses and drugs to — for a time — find an answer to their loneliness in each other. Greg teaches remedial English at a community college in Florida and writes poetry (often lamenting his abandoned rap career) between visiting a therapist and taking anti-depressants. Greg hints that his brokenness was inevitable; he doesn’t blame his parents, though he acknowledges they didn’t know what to do with him: “What happened is my parents lost the instructional manual. They did the best they could. More things should be Saran wrapped.”
Greg is also apparently deeply affected by knowledge that his sister, Stephanie, was stillborn, and it’s clear that she has become a sort of angelic symbol to him (reminding me of sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, whose obsession with his dead twin sister colored his work with an existential sadness similar to what I find in Sherl’s poetry).
Z and Greg spend months together, delighting in their physical intimacy, creating the sort of private world typical of all lovers, but deepened and isolated more by their multiple dysfunctions. The first 85 pages or so chart this relationship with unforgettable imagery, humor, and frankness. But then Z begins to “threaten” Greg “with babies,” and the narrator “breaks monogamy.” I suspect that, beyond the normal (nearly cliché) aversion to fatherhood, the specter of Greg’s dead sister and his own ineffective upbringing push him away from the sort of family Z needs. The break-up puts him in an even darker emotional state: “I don’t know why balloons exist,” he reflects, “except to make children cry when they drop the string.” He begins to sleep with a series of women, clearly trying to efface his feelings and her memory. He cannot, and in the end he accepts that the relationship has “emotionally educated” him.
Monogamy Songs is, in the end, a powerful meditation on the ways in which our neuroses can destroy our relationships and isolate us. Or is it? Sherl’s epilogue cleverly invites us to see something even deeper: “I have been lying to you before you even thought to buy this book. You were born and I was standing above you and I was telling you that you would always be loved and that God was kind and that you would always be loved with the kindness God felt when he took clay and thought giants with tiny arms should have sharp teeth.”...more
TOP SHELF review, originally published in the May 9, 2013, edition of The Monitor.
Over the past dozen years, our beloved frontera has gone from a deliTOP SHELF review, originally published in the May 9, 2013, edition of The Monitor.
Over the past dozen years, our beloved frontera has gone from a delightful pastiche of cultures and languages intermingling in promising, positive ways (with undercurrents of dreams deferred) to a battle zone where innocents die and too many young people aspire to narcohood. In the important new anthology Our Lost Border: Essays on Life amid the Narco-Violence, editors Sarah Cortez and Sergio Troncoso help us to understand how we got where we are and just how much we have lost.
Part I of the collection (The Tortured Landscape) consists of essays that trace the origin and spread of recent border violence. In “The Widest of Borders,” Liliana Blum shatters myths (e.g., Mexican drugs are exclusively consumed by Americans) and demonstrates that there is blame enough for multiple parties. Lolita Bosch, in “The War, Us, the Peace,” explores the impact that racism, classicism and lack of opportunity have had on Mexico. Diego Osorno narrates the horror that basically eradicated an entire town in “The Battle for Ciudad Mier.” María Socorro Tabuenca Córdoba closes the section with “Mirrors, Ghosts and Violence in Ciudad Juárez,” which examines how narco-violence has obscured the plight of the dozens of women murdered in that border city.
In Part II (The Personal Stories), authors share the devastating impact the Mexican cartel wars have had on a once vibrant way of life. Nearly every one of these pieces contrasts the writers’ experiences growing up, crisscrossing a blurry border whose colors and people shaded into each other, with a present reality that breaks abruptly with those memories. From abandoning beloved trips into the old country to selling off family property in Mexico, from musical genres twisted by a rough and gaudy new cultural trend to empty streets of once teeming towns, from young boys with AK-47s to bridges that loom ominously, the heart-breaking images of these bittersweet memoirs moved me deeply.
Two of the more impactful essays were by the editors themselves. Sarah Cortez, a former law-enforcement officer, powerfully proclaims herself part of a group of individuals “who stand against the wholesale execution of decent human beings by thugs for illegal gain, sanctioned by a government too weak or too dirty to act.” Sergio Troncoso closes the collection with a poignant sentiment: “It was a better life than what we have today, and we understand that fact mostly in retrospect, as we often do, when we lose what we value before we had a chance to appreciate what it meant.”
Informative and stirring, Our Lost Border is an invaluable tool for engaging in the sorts of conversations and behavior that will allow us to turn the tide of violence along the border. A must-read for those who dream of a return to the border that was....more
Great new book from from Dr. Steve Sherwood, director of TCU's William L. Adams Center for Writing and winner of the 2003 George Garrett Fiction PrizeGreat new book from from Dr. Steve Sherwood, director of TCU's William L. Adams Center for Writing and winner of the 2003 George Garrett Fiction Prize. Published by the young Angelina River Press, Field Guide manages to perfectly balance a reverential love for nature with a bemused affection for the foibles and frailties of human beings. In this humorous yet poignant collection of essays and stories, Steve Sherwood sweeps from glorious mountain tops, through Mesoamerican canyons, across rolling fields of wheat, and into the whitewashed suburbs and seedy bars where hard truths lie waiting. A true tour-de-force! ...more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the June 5, 2014 edition of The Monitor
James Hoggard, professor at Midwestern State University for nearlyA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the June 5, 2014 edition of The Monitor
James Hoggard, professor at Midwestern State University for nearly five decades, is best known for his award-winning literary translations and poetry, which led to his selection in 2000 as Texas Poet Laureate. But Hoggard’s body of work encompasses many more genres, including drama and fiction as well as assorted bits of journalism.
Contributing to his broad oeuvre, Wings Press has recently published Hoggard’s The Devil’s Fingers and Other Personal Essays, a delightfully meandering trip through the author’s life and heart as well as across the world, from Wichita Falls to Iraq and all sorts of memorable spots along the way.
Though the essays range widely, they fall loosely into thematic groups: cycling, marathons, fishing, hiking, family, travel and nature.
The cycling series often emphasizes the reactions of people who aren’t cyclists to the sport, as in the bemused “Blue Paints,” in which Hoggard’s garish get-up elicits some interesting responses from a group of good ol’ boys; or “Hottern’ Hell Hundred,” which explores not only the motivation of cyclists for attempting mad feats of exertion, but also that of the people who line up to hydrate and care for them.
The marathon series is all about pitting the flesh against world, overcoming insane challenges in last-minute bursts of incredible endurance. Of these, I loved “The Marathon Shirt” the best, with its reflections on ancient Greece and hilariously motivating t-shirt blunder (let’s just say you should never mix Sparta and Athens with Hoggard on your heels).
The hiking pieces are interesting in that they show the physically adept author in ungraceful awkwardness, stumbling through uneven terrain in ill-fitting shoes, attempting an activity more suited to his wife Lynn. The nature-centered essays, while often including Hoggard’s love of motion, are more about the wildlife and geography itself, as in the title piece (named for the four nearly lifeless canyons scored into the desert near Big Bend) and in “Tarantula Hawk,” a poetic reflection on the practices of that spider wasp.
Several of the vignettes center on family. In “A Sycamore and a Piano,” we delve lightly into Hoggard’s relationship with his mother via the implicit metaphor of the title. “Visit in the Mountains” is a stirring look at the unexpected and lovely ways families can gel into existence.
I found Hoggard’s travel essays the most fascinating of all, however. Whether in Cuba or Iraq, interacting with academics and common folk, or in Paris or London, searching for a personal connection so that he can establish the particular “feel” of the place for himself, Hoggard’s erudite understanding of the world is never heavy-handed or pedantic and his eye for detail plus his unflagging empathy make him the perfect guide.
Throughout the collection, Hoggard emphasizes the tangible, personal, often physical nature of experience over abstractions and metaphor. I come away from his brilliant writing reminded of the Combatant in the work of Kazantzakis, the individual or collective human who pits himself against the world, striving ever upward, leaving a red ribbon behind: a trail of bloody footprints for us to follow toward some transubstantiation of flesh into spirit.
The Devil’s Fingers is a life-affirming work that I encourage you to read. ...more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the July 12, 2014 edition of The Monitor
After WWII, the English-speaking world experienced a boom of interA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the July 12, 2014 edition of The Monitor
After WWII, the English-speaking world experienced a boom of interest in Latin-American literature that arguably had a profound effect on writing published across the globe. Vital to this movement was the work of Gregory Rabassa, who translated some of the key texts into English and opened the floodgates for others.
Rabassa has won multiple awards for his work: the PEN Translation Prize, the Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation, the Gregory Kolovakos Award, and the U.S. National Book Award for Translation.
As a translator, I was excited to learn of his book If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, A Memoir, recipient of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir. Though written by a man pushing 90, the volume is full of wit and verve as well as invaluable insight into the process of one of our greatest translators.
In the first 50 pages or so, Rabassa reflects on the art of translation and its oddly disreputable position among the arts, reviewing broadly some of the linguistic and cultural conundrums translators face. He then sets out to provide personal context for his evolution into a translator: born in Yonkers, New York, into a family whose patriarch was a Cuban émigré, Rabassa lived a linguistically playful life. His college studies were interrupted by World War II, during which conflict he served an OSS cryptographer. Upon his return, he studied Romance languages and literature atDartmouth and Columbia University, where he eventually earned a doctorate and began to teach. It was here that he co-founded the journal Odyssey, which published many Latin-American stories and poems in English for the first time.
Rabassa’s memoir then goes on to walk us through a “bill of particulars,” a chronological review of all the major works in Spanish and Portuguese that he has translated. And what a list it is! Beginning with Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (a project that spawned a life-long friendship), Rabassa’s body of work contains some of the most important translations of the 20th century, including A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, who waited three years to secure Rabassa as translator and who famously said that the English version was better than the original.
From Vargas Llosa to Machado de Assis, the iteration of authors is a veritable round-up of must-reads, and the inside perspective on the authors and their interactions (or lack thereof) with the translator is eye-opening.
In the end, some may find Rabassa’s often hand-wavey explanations of the translation process frustrating. His own practice is to render a book into English as he reads it for the first time, without any real preparation or research (except on-the-fly, as needed). But as a translator, I find this honesty refreshing. Translators, at the end of the day, are just very careful readers with the uncanny skill of reading one language into another.
This book is meant for them and for anyone fascinated by Latin-American literature in general....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the May 20, 2016 edition of The Monitor
American author, essayist and poet Ana Castillo has had a storied aA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the May 20, 2016 edition of The Monitor
American author, essayist and poet Ana Castillo has had a storied and critically acclaimed career, garnering national recognition like the American Book Award given her first novel, a Carl Sandburg Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in fiction and poetry and in 1998 Sor Juana Achievement Award by the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Chicago.
In both her scholarly and creative work, Castillo has explored with unflinching truthfulness issues of race, gender, ethnicity, class and orientation. Perhaps most significant has been her tireless championing of what she terms Xicanisma, intersectional Chicana feminism in an increasingly backward and hostile political climate.
Though she has taught classes on memoir writing down the years and mined her own life to craft her literary projects, Castillo had never written a truly autobiographical work until her latest book, Black Dove: Mamá, M’ijo and Me (The Feminist Press). The title is taken from the famous song “Paloma Negra,” composed by Tomás Méndez, the second line of which mourns “no sé si maldecirte o por ti rezar” (I don’t know whether to curse you or pray for you). These were the words Castillo’s mother said to her as she left, a rebellious youngster, to make her unique way in the world.
This tension between mother and daughter infuses the emotionally charged reflections in Black Dove, as Castillo gradually comes to a hard-won understanding of the vicissitudes of (single) motherhood and a renewed respect for the struggles of poverty and racial tension Latinas face as they raise children in the United States.
Topics in the memoir range broadly: the contrast between Castillo’s sexually empowered, big-dreaming Tía Flora and her more reserved mother; the role of tortillas in Mexican-American culture and her own childhood; her teen years in late ’60s and early ’70s Chicago, balancing her own heritage with Black popular culture and hippie leanings; her family’s lack of interest in her college studies and the multiple horrible encounters with men that began to color her view of that sex.
But the beating and bruised heart of Castillo’s tale is her love for her only son, his many struggles as an adult and his eventual arrest. Watching her child be swallowed by the unwieldy and ugly penal system is one of the most difficult moments in her life. As she grapples with her own disappointment and the healing of their relationship, the author weaves a cohesive weft of communal plight from her family’s roots, her personal journey across the globe, and her son’s harrowing incarceration.
Embedded in this beautifully written tapestry are candid examinations of her own sexuality — including her long-term relationship with the woman who helped her raise her son — the restorative nature of writing, and the realization of how her own mother’s stern, solitary personality is reflected in her own
Black Dove is a masterful addition to American literary non-fiction, both solidly a work of Xicanisma and a moving life story that will resonate with readers of any background whose voices have been forced into the margins. Ana Castillo stands as one of the pillars of Chicana literature and scholarship — alongside other greats like Gloria Anzaldúa and Sandra Cisneros — I encourage you to give the book a read....more