Whenever I am not writing, I am reading, and sometimes I am even writing about reading…
First up is a transcript of one of the highlights of my literary life: introducing Pico Iyer at a reading he gave in Iowa City in February 2012. I have also had the honor of introducing Rebecca Solnit, Sandra Cisneros, and Ted Conover.
The glory of pursuing a MFA is the opportunity to read all those writers you’ve known you should but haven’t. Here is my list from my most productive year.
And here are teasers for book reviews I have written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Texas Observer:
* Amexica: War Along the Borderline, by Ed Vulliamy. It starts with a headless body dangling from an underpass called Bridge of Dreams. A bed sheet unfurls beside it, sending a message from one drug cartel to another. Hours before firemen come to cut down the corpse, venerated British journalist Ed Vulliamy arrives on the scene. He takes everything in, noting how the straps beneath its armpits “creak”; how its feet “flap in the wind.” Yet he is equally transfixed by the crowd that has gathered in “unsurprised silence.” They gawk “at this hideous, buckled thing, perhaps fearing, if they leave, they might take with them the curse of that which was done.” Readers of Vulliamy’s Amexica: War Along the Borderline quickly find themselves in a similar quandary. Page after page depicts horrifying violence rendered in grisly, though compelling, detail. As Vulliamy (disturbingly) notes, “the feral physical cruelty of the slaughter accentuates the borderland’s sensuality and libido.” READ MORE
* On the Plain of Snakes, by Paul Theroux. Taking a road trip through Mexico wasn’t always a radical act. Throughout the past century, U.S. artists ventured south seeking muses; surfers, waves; vagabonds, Mayan ruins; Chicanas, ancestral connections. Until the mid-1990s, my parents thought nothing of driving to Monterrey from Corpus Christi, Tex., to visit family. (It’s 100 miles closer than Dallas.) I myself spent much of 2005 and 2006 traipsing around Mexico by bus, relishing the free ham-and-jalapeno sandwiches they served with a Jumex and a smile. But Americans’ insatiable hunger for drugs — and Mexican drug lords’ race to supply them — has since turned a luminous nation into a battlefield. Nearly 300,000 Mexicans have vanished or been killed since December 2006, when then-president Felipe Calderón tried to dismantle the cartels. A decade later, the United States elected a president whose rallying cry was “Build that wall,” despite the ineffectiveness of the 670 miles that already existed. READ MORE
* Bright Unbearable Reality, by Anna Badkhen. The morning after police officers shot and killed a man in her Philadelphia neighborhood, Anna Badkhen traveled to the ocean to think about birds. According to the Greeks, she tells us, “birds tell us what is to come.” Badkhen has spent her career documenting inequities around the world, including as a foreign correspondent who covered the United States’ invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq for The San Francisco Chronicle. In her acrobatic seventh collection, longlisted for the National Book Award, she lasers her attention on the global turmoil that has expelled one in seven people from their homelands. From the Sahara to the Texas-Mexico border, with flashbacks to her native Soviet Union, Badkhen vaults in and out of events ranging from prehistoric times to the pandemic. Throughout, her references leap deftly from geology to the sculptor Roni Horn to etymology to the poet Anne Carson. What grounds us in this daring work is Badkhen’s incandescent poetics, an augury all its own. READ MORE
* Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli. Early in Valeria Luiselli’s virtuosic new novel, Lost Children Archive, the narrator realizes she has entered an ethical minefield. She makes radio documentaries for a living, and while she knows in her bones that testimonios must be recorded of the thousands of unaccompanied kids fleeing the calamities of their homelands, she worries about the implications of the endeavor. “How can an artwork be useful in helping more undocumented children find asylum?” she asks herself. “Isn’t art for art’s sake so often an absolutely ridiculous display of intellectual arrogance? … And why would I even think that I can or should make art with someone else’s suffering? … No one decides to not go to work and start a hunger strike after listening to the radio in the morning.” READ MORE
* The Line Becomes A River, by Francisco Cantu. It’s Christmas Eve, and Francisco Cantú and his mother are drinking eggnog with brandy around a miniature tree. Mom, a retired Park Service ranger, is trying to understand why—after graduating with honors from American University—her mijo is training to be a Border Patrol agent. Isn’t that sort of work, she delicately asks, beneath him? Cantú is quick to defend his career choice. Despite growing up near the Arizona-Mexico border and having a grandfather who crossed over during the Mexican Revolution, he argues that he mainly knows the region from books. Now he seeks a perspective that can only be found “out in the field.” Besides, imagine the comfort he could offer migrants, speaking with them in their own language with a knowledge of their homeland. Maybe he could infuse some humanity into the situation. “It’s a paramilitary police force,” Mom objects. READ MORE
* New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, edited by Madison Smartt Bell. Anthology editing must be one of literature’s most thankless jobs. You are challenged by writers, readers and critics on every front: whom you included, whom you omitted, the book’s order, its theme, the intro you cobbled together to justify your reasoning. God help you if you make a bold claim in the title, like Best American Political / Travel/Sports / Nature / Spiritual Writing. No one will ever be happy. So I looked on the latest volume of New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best with collegial empathy. Its editor, Tennessean novelist Madison Smartt Bell, is worthy of such a post. Among other accolades, he won the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf Award for the year’s best book dealing with race, All Souls’ Rising. He completes his task admirably here, compiling 21 short stories from south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Nearly all are enjoyable. A few are genius. Yet I have a mighty rant on this book…. READ MORE
* Golondrina, Why Did You Leave Me? by Barbara Renaud Gonzalez. The question is posed innocently enough: “¿Como cruzaste, Mami?” “How did you cross the border, mommy?” Yet 60-year-old Amada evades it, heating gorditas and swiveling her hips to a love tune. Why can’t her daughter, Lucero, probe her for chisme? She’d be happy to divulge the latest ‘scandalo of her four sisters, or of the neighbors across the street. But no. Lucero only wants to hear that story, the one Amada is afraid to tell. So she lays down her spatula and lights a cigarette. The story that slowly unfolds is the basis of San Antonio writer Bárbara Renaud González’s debut novel, Golondrina, why did you leave me? READ MORE
In 2019, I participated in a joint project between Carolina Performing Arts and INDY Week called “The Commons Crit,” in which non-critics were invited to write reflections about a performing arts festival featuring commissioned new work. I critiqued Megan Yankee’s performance “Que gringa, que gringa,” which was her response to the recent ICE raids in North Carolina. Here is my review.