Tag Archives: Book Review

9.2 | Book Review

Rebecca Williamson

Albert Abonado’s JAW: A Review

The mouth is crucial to our identity. It is vital for our most basic need of eating, but it is also essential for language, love, and song. It’s with our mouths, after all, that we form our most important and difficult questions: who am I? Where do I belong? In JAW, poet Albert Abonado, a first-generation Filipino American, explores identity, family, and culture. With attention to the human body—specifically the various parts of the mouth—Abonado probes what it means to be both Filipino and American. In poems that are both serious and funny, Abonado tackles the question of identity and reveals the challenges of sustaining one’s cultural heritage.

The collection  begins with “America Tries to Remove a Splinter,” a poem about assimilation. Despite America promising it will be quick, the reader understands there is a cost to the extraction: 

you will not notice how

I have put my hands inside your bones which are hollow 

which are your father          your mother         I have your hand

on my palm       how does this feel

The person who has the splinter never responds in this poem, but the following poems provide some answers. In the poem “How to Unbend the Tongue.” The speaker admits he has tried to learn Tagalog, but can’t fully master it. He wishes he was comfortable “to say / blood and dick with sincerity” in Tagalog but can’t do so. In the end, he is unable to unbend his tongue to speak the language of his family. Another poem that explores language is “The Greeting,” where the speaker dreams about his father’s tongue, “how it contracts, isolated, / enters the world already heavy / and blackened.” 

Family history is also examined as a way of understanding what it means to be Filipino American. The second section of the collection is focused on Tito Manuel, who Abonado said in an interview on The Sundress Blog is based on his deceased Uncle and his stories of surviving World War II. In “Tito Manuel Escapes the Death March,” the speaker says:

No offense to the man whose
body I hide beneath, but I am good
at being dead

regardless of what
my urine soaking
in the ground might suggest. 

The  image of the speaker—Tito Manuel—burying himself under a dead body to remain alive is harrowing and reveals how significant experiences of inherited trauma might become woven into one’s identity. Tito Manuel’s story becomes another layer of what it means to be a Filipino American, especially how such identities are heightened during war. 

In JAW’s third section, Abonado turns to popular culture to further explore identity. Through poems that address Harold and Kumar, the Asian characters in the buddy film Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Abonado questions the losses of immigration, the challenges of  assimilation, and the damning effects of stereotyping. In the poem, “The Darkest Sugars Are Always the Sweetest,” the speaker says:

you and I are great Americans. We have great American 
Hands and great American hair. Great American American holes 
in the elbows of our button downs and great American 
teeth with great American coffee stains.

Here, Abonado seems as if he is persuading Kumar of their shared Americanness, the proof is the love of Coca-Cola, that most American of beverages, and the rotten teeth it creates. Indeed, the speaker “cannot stop singing about its virtues to [his] wife.” In “The Mercy Suit” we are again confronted with images of the mouth, though here it stays closed: “Kumar, I have watched my loved / ones do this, leave behind holes / where their voice should be.”

The final section feels like a reconciliation of the Filipino and the American within the speaker. “Someday I Will Love Albert Abonado” acknowledges that the name—Albert—had belonged to the speaker’s grandfather’s. Albert is told “learn / to love your spine, which is a collection of your mother’s / spindles, love the fingers that break each time you use them / to count.” Here, our speaker returns to the body to plead with Albert to love himself. He encourages Albert to see the name as “sweetened,” a bounty,  “harvested again.”

JAW is about family, identity, immigration, and what gets left behind. As the collection ends with “Self-Portrait as a Wisdom Tooth,” the speaker says, “I collide against myself, recoil from / my ghostly hum. I do not own / the blood that passes beneath me, but I threaten its alignment.” JAW, a moving and resonant collection, is a reckoning with the past and the future as the speaker in “Idle” says:

They followed a star here 

They came looking for myrrh          This is an old story

Maybe you’ve heard it before

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9.1 | Book Review

Sara Devoe

Sonya Bilocerkowycz’s On Our Way Home from the Revolution: A Review

People have various identities. There is one’s gender identity, cultural identity, ethnic identity, sexual identity, and so on. But what does it mean to take pride in one’s identity? What defines one’s identity? Is it understanding one’s own roots? Is it participation in certain cultural events? Is it going to the Ukrainian restaurant in the East Village of Manhattan, or sacrificing relationships to fight in a revolution? In her collection of essays, On Our Way Home from the Revolution, Sonya Bilocerkowycz tackles these questions as she explores her identity as a Ukrainian American. 

On Our Way Home From the Revolution is comprised of fifteen essays in which Bilocerkowycz pieces out where exactly she fits in the timeline of the Ukrainian Revolution. In doing this, her essays look at family relationships, culturally immersive experiences, and travel to show a changing sense of what it means to be Ukrainian. We are welcomed into Bilocerkowycz’s Ukrainian heritage and invited to watch memories of her family (specifically her Busia, which is Ukrainian for grandmother) play out. Busia is a central figure throughout these essays; guiding Bilocerkowycz on her journey of self-discovery from afar. On their relationship, Bilocerkowycz says, “I don’t know where Busia ends and where I begin.”  Bilocerkowycz travels to the Ukraine to teach English, where she experiences revolution firsthand. 

Extensive research also informs this collection. For instance, “Word Portrait” is a document taken from police files which lists the characteristics of Bilocerkowycz’s grandfather, also known as prisoner No.XXXXX, who was arrested for betrayal. Bilocerkowycz obtained this through emailing the Ukrainian archives about her grandfather. Other instances of research mixed with speculation are the multiperspectivity that lies in “Duck and Cover.” Bilocerkowycz imagines herself in the shoes of several different people. She imagines herself as Sasha, an eight-year-old student who was present at the time of the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor. “Duck and cover is what your fourth-grade teacher screamed, but what she meant is this is war,” she would say to Sasha. Bilocerkowycz also puts herself in the shoes of Anna Politkovskaya, a Ukrainian journalist who was murdered in an elevator. Bilocerkowycz says, “Ten years later, when my grandmother dies, I will admire her crown of glory and think about where I came from.”

The essays stand alone, but together the effect is one, long story with intertwined characters and once central conflict–a search for identity. The interconnectedness we see between “The Village (Fugue),” “The Village (Reprise),” and “The Village (De Capo)” is a great example of this. All three stories follow Bilocerkowycz’s grandfather, and her journey of discovering his past actions. In “The Village (Fugue),” we are told by Busia about the village elder in the small Ukrainian village, who then becomes Bilocerkowycz’s grandfather who was aiding the Germans in “The Village (Reprise).” Despite what she learns about her grandfather, Bilocerkowycz does not let the facts erase what she feels for this country and her people. In “The Village (De Capo),” she tells the reader “…I am telling my daughter she may go to the revolution. Which means I am telling my granddaughter, too: Yes, of course, leave home and go.”

Bilocerkowycz’s use of vivid imagery makes the reader feel as though they are experiencing life alongside her. With just its title, “I Saw the Sunshine Melting” offers a both innocent and eerie way to describe the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Bilocerkowycz mentions how many of the bus drivers, one including her great-uncle’s cousin whose name they don’t know, got out as evacuation was occurring and sunbathed, blissfully unaware of radiation poisoning. Readers would also be struck by the imagery in “Encyclopedia of Earthly Things,” a story that is written entirely about Bilocerkowycz’s affiliations with certain words–like the word “poppy,” which she describes as, “Petals of red paper, easily lost. Suggests virginity. The seeds are also like fish eggs.” Each word or object she describes comes along with a resonant image affiliated with her Busia, and although some are sweet, some are brutal, like “A Sunflower Field,” which she describes as, “…a graveyard. It is a cemetery for Boeing plane parts.” 

Though On Our Way Home from the Revolution is rich in history, it is not just a collection for history lovers. Unlike history books, Bilocerkowycz immerses readers in another’s life. We come to understand the emotional reckoning Bilocerkowycz has undergone. As much as this is a collection of essays about revolution, it is also about the yearning to discover one’s place in the world. As Bilocerkowycz asks, “Am I just a reflection of a reflection?” It is a collection for readers who desire to open themselves to harsh realities and see how those realities pave ways for new beginnings. 

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Good Can Come From Bad: A Review and Comparison of “The Goldfinch” Book and Film

Posted by Hemingway Lovullo, Fiction Reader for 8.2

After polarizing box office reviews, with critics and regular moviegoers alike ranking the movie everything from one to five stars, The Goldfinch film seems to require a certain kind of taste to enjoy it. And indeed, the book it was based on is not for the faint of heart either.As an avid reader and moviegoer, my expectations for this story were very high. So imagine my surprise when I found myself, for once, liking the movie better than the book! It’s true, I devoured the book, in love with the writing and the characters–from bitter, pessimistic Theodore Decker to his alcoholic Russian friend (and lover?) Boris Pavlikovsky. However, I was unfortunately blindsided by an ending that seemed to betray everything I had felt for the characters in the novel.

(Spoilers ahead!)

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Nicole Callahan

Aisha Sharif’s To Keep From Undressing: A Review

What is the connotation of the word “performance?” Our primary association with “performance” is the theatrical; our understanding of performance has become inextricably linked to the idea of something pretended, something acted out but not done. We think of performance as dishonest. To perform humility or joy is not understood to be the same as to be humble or joyous.

That may be why people dismiss the idea that identity is a type of performance. To say that identity is what you do and not simply what you are is often an uncomfortable proposition. Many people find comfort in identitarian labels—for good reason. Labels like “woman” or “man,” “gay” or “trans,” “Chinese” or “Jewish,” unite individuals with shared experiences and allow for societal comprehension of complex concepts. Aisha Sharif’s collection of poetry, To Keep from Undressing, resonates with a truth seldom expressed so thoroughly: that identity is a performance. A complicated, contradictory performance, clearly, but a sincere one, nonetheless. Throughout her collection, Sharif’s speakers wrestle with their lived experiences. They are Black, Muslim-American women; daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, and poets. The way these identities interact is at the very heart of Sharif’s work, it informs the structure of her poetry and her understanding that each identity is its own intricate performance.

To Keep from Undressing is divided into five sections. Each includes a part of the poem “If my Parents Hadn’t Converted: Questions and Answers,” which straddles the line between humorous and sincere hypothetical scenarios. The poem explores how the speaker’s entire life was shaped by one decision. Christian Aisha, or “Marian Elizabeth” would have had a prom dress “just short enough / to reveal / [her] knees.” When asked how many Muslims the Christian version of herself would “actually befriend,” she leaves no response at all. The poem serves as a pillar to the collection, always returning it to the key questions of who we are and how our experiences shape us. Sharif suggests that her Christian self is still her in a way, but that despite the fact that we all have various versions of ourselves contained within us, the Christian Aisha is missing certain key experiences that are an important part of her current identity.

The experimentation with structure in Sharif’s poems establishes her poetic identity. Sharif manipulates the formal aspects of poetry to build upon new ideas. Her poems’ experimental structures further emphasize the importance of performance. In the poem “A Mathematical Expression of Faith,” the relationship between the speaker’s family’s old Christian ways and the new Muslim ways they practice is presented as an equation to balance. Many poems have a call-and-response structure or a song-like quality to them. “After School on the City Bus, Memphis, TN,” for example, is performed as a school yard chant. At a live reading of the poem, Sharif’s voice echoed out the words of a juvenile bully, a taunt which she wishes she had responded to with a song of her own, by singing “Muslims know god.” Poetry’s very roots lie in performance, and these poems emphasize that relationship. Sharif has a firm understanding of her poems’ sonic qualities and the way they play with language and vernacular, for example in “Hijab Be,” where Sharif discusses the versatility and freedom of her fellow hijabis, how “Hijab be prayin’ still. / Hijab be raisin’ hell.” She combines and shapes her different identities and different schools of thought—scientific, schoolyard, Black, Muslim—to establish the identity of her work.

The collection’s philosophy on identity culminates in “The Fitting Room,” where Sharif’s speaker explains to a non-Muslim saleswoman why she wears the hijab. The speaker questions her own choice to cover, though she doesn’t reveal this to the saleswoman. Despite the way she questions her faith, she chooses to put her hijab back on, “pinning the performance in place.” This action is her way of performing faith through her doubt, which shows the complexity of her relationship to covering. Sharif’s hijab reifies her belief in a concrete way. In the simple act of putting on a headscarf, a mere performance, she creates her identity.

In contrast to the act of dressing, the creation of poetry serves as a symbolic undressing. Sharif’s work is the dissolution of identity markers to reach at the undefined internal experience. The collection takes its name from a line found in “Iddah: Part II,” which explores the time after the speaker’s sister got divorced. The sister lies stagnant in yesterday’s clothes, she does “anything to keep from undressing.” When considering the way in which putting on a hijab cemented her external identity in “The Fitting Room,” the act of dressing becomes synonymous with performing identity. In this way, her sister’s fear of undressing signifies an unwillingness to lose her identity of “wife.”

To Keep from Undressing balances the creation and deconstruction of identity. The collection constructs identities, as contradictory and complex as they may be, but it also deconstructs the actions we take to create our identities. It dresses and undresses the poet. To Keep from Undressing is itself a performance that created something real.

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Electric Arches: A Review of Eve L. Ewing’s Sci-Fi Love Song to Black America

Posted by Olivia Martel Cockerham, GD Art Editor and Poetry Reader for 7.1

In her first book of poems, sociologist Eve L. Ewing takes the reader traveling through time. Beneath its stunning cover by Trinidadian artist Brianna McCarthy, Electric Arches reveals magic powers and “moon men,” machines that let you speak back into history and receive voices of the past. It traces the legacies of historic African American figures to the routine and daily struggle of black people facing abuse from police and civilians alike; the past and present of black America bleeding together and reaching, stretching out to hopeful tomorrows. Continue reading

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Shara McCallum’s Madwoman: an Exploration of Female Identity, Race, and Strength

Posted by Arianna Miller, GD Co-Poetry Section Head for 6.2

Shara McCallum was this semester’s visiting poet at SUNY Geneseo.  I had not only the pleasure of sitting down for lunch with McCallum, both also of reading her diverse collection, MadwomanMadwoman spans across what it means to be a woman, to have the privilege of being a black woman who appears white, and to accept being the daughter of a schizophrenic, all with the underlying presence of her Jamaican heritage.    Continue reading

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A Review of Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, and a reflection on the relationship between art and story

Posted by Francesco Bruno, GD Fiction Co-Section Head for 6.2 

I invite you to refute the old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover,” and contemplate the paperback edition of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, published in 2011 by Alfred A Knopf. The cover shows a colorful menagerie of bodies in manifold contortions and postures. The translucent figures overlap and blend with each other, but no single figure grabs a central focus. The book’s title is laid over this image (again, the font is translucent) and the cluster of bodies is put into focus by a background of stark white space. The cover suggests not cacophony but polyphony, its narratives not shouting over one another but offering a variety of perspectives and lenses through which readers can continuously re-interpret the cover. Continue reading

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A Kind of Book Review of Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds

Posted by Frank Bruno, Fiction Reader for issue 6.1

In May of 2016 Ocean Vuong’s first full length collection of poetry, Night Sky With Exit Wounds was released by Copper Canyon Press. The book has since received swaths of rave reviews and a number of prestigious awards including the Whiting Award, the Forward Prize, and the Thom Gunn Award. Despite the relative media buzz created by the book, it only came to me a year after its initial release when my friend read me the poem “Thanksgiving 2006.” I started reading my own copy this past June and finished it last week. Continue reading

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Posted by Anthony Bettina, GD Creative Non-Fiction Reader for 5.2

Yes, everyone in America knows (or at least should know) about the plight of the African-American from the inception of The United States America to present day. It is a topic of frequent discussion in political and social circles alike when addressing concerns such as the legitimacy of Affirmative Action in an attempt to counter-act the unforgivable wrongs of slavery in America.  But, what we as Americans fail to do is truly understand the horrors of slavery and its lasting impact on America.

What Harriet Jacobs does in her narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is truly remarkable. As a partially self-taught speaker & writer of English, she manages to eloquently explain the natural rights denied to the common black woman, whether this be the right to their own children, right to consent, or right to abide by their own religious beliefs. To get a more in depth look at her life, I encourage you to read this biography about her, and to learn more about slavery in America in general check here. Her relationship with her first master- “Dr. Flint” is especially revealing.   Continue reading

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The Opposite of Loneliness: Marina Keegan’s Sentiments for the Student

Posted By Emily McClemont, GD Creative Nonfiction Reader for 5.2

“Sparkl[ing] with talent, humanity, and youth.” (O, The Oprah Magazine).

In May of 2012, Marina Keegan graduated magna cum laude from Yale University. She lost her life in a car accident shortly after. Two years following Keegan’s death, a collection of her short stories and essays was published. A New York Times bestseller and Goodreads Choice Awards in Nonfiction (2014) winner, The Opposite of Loneliness conveys, as Keegan’s former mentor, Harold Bloom states, Keegan’s request for the student generation “to invest their youthful pride and exuberance both in self-development and in the improvement of our tormented society.” Continue reading

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