Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Briefly Noted

A monthly book review in brief from the staff of Prairie Schooner.
On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths

Volume 1, Issue 3. August 2012.

 

Dawes on Amina Gautier’s At Risk | Harlan-Orsi on William Maxwell’s Time Will Darken It | Redd on Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind | Crews on Lucia Perillo’s On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths | Diouf on Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature

 

Amina Gautier. At Risk. Georgia UP, 2011.
 
Reviewed by Kwame Dawes
 
There is a sly irony at the core of Amina Gautier's short story collection, At Risk. The implication in the term when used by social workers and educators is that the kids who are at risk are at risk of moving from delinquency to criminality. The label has become a catch phrase filling in for words like black or minority. The term is reductive and employed in that easy superficiality that pretends a common understanding of its meaning. Gautier's characters are young, they are minorities, they are from the inner cities of urban landscapes, but they are only at risk of losing their youth, of losing their sense of innocence and discovery, losing their joy, and losing the benefits of the process of maturation. Ultimately, Gautier’s task is simple: to lift the veil of cliché and stereotype to reveal the human complexity of characters who may act stupidly, out of fear, out of hurt, or simply because thy are young. Gautier is good at what she does. Her characters speak in language registers that are pitch perfect, and she approaches these languages as an anthropological linguist would: meticulously and with an impeccable ear for the nuances of dialects that range from Jamaican patois, to Hispanic tinged Brooklyn-speak, to southern flecked New York-speak of the MTV age. But this is all cosmetics. Her true achievement is her capacity to tell stories of urgency, sensitivity and grace. Her characters are bearers of psychological complexity. Gautier's writes in the voice of male and female characters, she allows her characters to be stupid and brilliant, jealous and petulant, dignified and even heroic. Thus, whether it is a girl learning the implications of having family who live with drug addiction, or a boy torn between a desire not to hurt his mother by triggering her real fears for his life and his desperate need for the escape of his friendship with a less than desirable kid, or whether it is a teenage mother who is trying to contend with the implications of being a young mother—all familiar stories in their basic broad strokes, it is her fine sense of detail, her intimate knowledge of the quirks and foibles of her character, and her capacity to write lines with seemingly effortless grace, that make this such a pleasurable and enlightening read.

 

Short Shrifted: Significant Books Under the Radar*: William Maxwell, Time Will Darken It. 1948.
 
Reviewed by Claire Harlan Orsi
 
I’m a bit wary of books that use omniscient narrators to depict small Midwestern towns (think Winesburg, Ohio) simply because it’s so easy for these novels to generalize about the nature of “real America” in cheesy or reductive ways. So I was surprised by how much I liked William Maxwell’s 1948 novel Time Will Darken It, which operates precisely by mixing a closely-observed account of life in the fictional small town of Draperville, Illinois with pronouncements from a benevolent and wise authorial presence. Maxwell, who is better known for his forty year tenure as the New Yorker’s fiction editor, more than earns his omniscience by the subtlety with which he probes his characters’ lives; these people are specific individuals rather than icons, and their specificity makes Maxwell’s attempt to extrapolate lessons from their lives more rather than less credible.

The novel centers on the household of lawyer Austin King. When relatives from Mississippi descend for a summer visit, Austin finds his rather precarious marriage, as well as his position in the community, tested. Austin is a dutiful man who essentially does everything right—a tough character on which to base a novel. But in showing the painstaking way in which Austin negotiates his social world Maxwell has created an enduringly sympathetic character. I get that sense that Maxwell, who mentored greats such as Cheever, Updike, and Salinger, would be displeased by much of the glamorous, provocative prose written by attention-hungry fiction writers today. His sentences are understated, his prose cut from oak, but passion and extreme empathy smolder just below the surface of this quietly beautiful novel.
 


Short Shrifted: Significant Books Under the Radar*: Margaret Mitchell. Gone With the Wind. Macmillan, 1936.
 
Reviewed by James Madison Redd
 
Ray Bradbury, though hesitant, would look on me disapprovingly if I considered burning Gone With the Wind. This epic of a nineteenth-century agrarian society at its most insolent, ignorant, and entitled is a blight upon the Pulitzer Prize. No person of Southern birth can escape the novel’s echo of Birth of a Nation or its nauseating racial and class mythology. Margaret Mitchell presents a narrowly-conceived portrait of a poisonous society from which any discriminating reader or writer should consciously set her or himself apart. Yet my inescapable heritage is a fellowship of Southern writers for better—Barry Hannah’s stories of the Civil War—or for worse, so I committed myself to reading this burden. Some of the pages bear the deep imprints of my thumb and others I ripped from the cheap paperback completely; however, I applauded the critical voice of the narrator when it occasionally excoriated Southern society. I presumptuously understood the novel as an uncompromising, romanticized portrait of the antebellum South. Indeed, taken as a monstrous whole, the novel desperately seeks to resurrect the idyllic South, yet Mitchell acknowledges the corruption of Southern officials and at least some ill treatment of women. I found myself fascinated by a wealth of socioeconomic facts about plantation, city, and nation building, and the meticulous depiction of Southern manners, though I could have run upon these details in any scholarly Southern history. If the novel triumphed at all, it was during the scenes of Atlanta’s desolation and the absurd march of the city’s final reinforcements: debased elderly men and deceived teens who go to fight for a war that even Mitchell agrees was senseless. When the privileged people of the South fall, facing complete and horrible loss to an invading army, they are admittedly, if only infinitesimally, pitiable.
 

Lucia Perillo, On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths. Copper Canyon, 2012.
 
Reviewed by James Crews
 
Lucia Perillo’s sixth collection of poetry, On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths, is certainly brilliant, rough-hewn, hard-won—but one could not rightly call these poems beautiful. Perillo avoids the sentimental and facile at every turn and even resorts to addressing herself within a poem to contradict any hint of preciousness: “ . . . oh shut up, Lucia. The rule is: you can’t nullify the world/ in the middle of your singing.” Sung with Perillo’s trademark attitude, these wry poems might at first blush strike readers as bitter, pessimistic. As she writes in “Again, the Body”:

When you spend many hours alone in a room
you have more than the usual chances to disgust yourself—
this is the problem of the body, not that it is mortal
but that it is mortifying.

Readers familiar with past collections and her book of essays, I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing (Trinity University Press, 2007), will know that Perillo has lived for years with multiple sclerosis, a debilitating and unpredictable disease. Given the way she eschews self-pity and refuses all the comforting platitudes, it’s no surprise that Perillo faces our collective mortality head-on, looks it in the eyes and, more often than not, admits defeat—as she does in “After Reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead”:

I don’t know how many births it takes to get
reborn as not the flower but the scent.
To be allowed to exist as air (a prayer
to whom?)—dear whom:
the weight of being is too much.

Perillo takes risks with her blunt-edged music that few could ever get away with, though admittedly, her moves can occasionally leave the reader confused. She has a habit of inserting parenthetical asides or using comma splices in her lines when a dash or period might offer a stronger pause between clauses. But this is a small complaint, especially since the momentum she achieves can leave a reader breathless:

. . . And the self
is the darling’s darling
(I = darling 2). Every day
I meditate against my envy
aimed at those who drift inside the bubble of no-trouble,
—what is the percentage? 20% of us? 8%? zero?
Maybe the ex-president with his nubile daughters,
vigorous old parents, and clean colonoscopy. Grrrr.

No one is spared in On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths, especially Perillo herself, and while it can at times be an uncomfortable read, it’s seldom we find such a fearless speaker we’re willing to follow just about anywhere—from the wild bird store in a strip mall to a salmon hatchery, from the scenes of a bad French movie to the Cumshewa Inlet near Vancouver. To read this raw collection is to ask, along with Perillo, the difficult and strange questions that can plague a misfit mind (“why does the brain have to be buried/in the prettiest place?”)—all the while knowing there’s no such thing as a right answer.

 

Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature. Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Laura Morgensen, eds. Arizona UP, 2011.
 
Reviewed by Oumar Diogoye Diouf
 
Queer Indigenous Studies is a “decolonial” monument. As its editors point out, it “is an act of remembering and imagining” (18). Not only does it capture and set in conversation with one another various past and current indigenous-centered anti-colonial voices, but it also makes effective emancipatory strategic moves that can help reshape and reroute native studies as well as native and non-native postcolonial, feminist, and GLBTQ2 scholarships and activisms.

As its title rightly suggests, this anthology centers queer indigenous frameworks. All of the eleven contributors write from a native GLBTQ2 activist standpoint, in spite of their variegated academic or militant backgrounds and regardless of whether they are actually native or not, GLBTQ2 or not.

Postcolonial practitioners will find particularly interesting and inspirational the ways in which the contributors to this anthology reaffirm their commitment to the struggle for indigenous intellectual sovereignty through the systematic centering of indigenous perspectives. In their critique of settler colonialism’s intellectual authority to construct knowledge about native peoples, they manage to undermine ethnographic and anthropological accounts of a native Other to be discovered, understood, and produced as knowledge. However, Queer indigenous Studies does not merely denounce the hegemonic core of majoritarian heteropatriarchal discourses. It achieves a synergy of various minoritarian “decolonial” and anti-heteronormative forces as it closes the gap between theory, political activism, and literature and bridges the intellectual gulf separating academic and popular activist scholarships.

Among the greatest postcolonial/transnational feminist achievements of Queer Indigenous Studies is the fact that, at the moment when (the Euro-American) Empire has largely succeeded in high-jacking and reducing the struggle for gender diversity to the so-called protection of sexual minorities, it manages to reinvest, into GLBTQ2 activist discourses, pre-colonial indigenous gender conceptions giving precedence to the social roles and responsibilities of queer and Two-Spirit people over their sexual orientation. On this account, however, the contributors could have loosened their almost exclusive focus on localized resistances to heteronormative settler colonialism in order to address (the supranational) Empire which has, after all, superseded both settler colonialism and other forms of nation-state imperialisms.

 

*A new category of reviews is featured this month with the Short-Shrifted label. These are reviews of non-contemporary books that might have been overlooked in their own time and deserve further consideration in a modern context.

 

Contributors

James Crews won the 2010 Prairie Schooner Book Prize with The Book of What Stays. He’s also authored three chapbooks, What Has Not Yet Left, Bending the Knot, and One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes: A Poem After the Life and Work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and is currently an Editorial Assistant at Prairie Schooner. … Oumar Diogoye Diouf is a Fulbright JSD fellow from Sénégal. He is currently a PhD candidate and a Graduate Teaching Assistant at the UNL English Department. His research interests center on Postcolonial Studies, American Pragmatism, and Transnational Feminism. … Kwame Dawes is the Glenna Luschei Editor-in-Chief of Prairie Schooner. His recent books include Wheels, Back of Mount Peace, and Bivouac, a novel. He was recently awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. … Claire Harlan-Orsi is the Blog and Social Networking Editor for Prairie Schooner. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, MAYDAY, and The Believer. … Beginning in August on the Schooner Blog, James Madison Redd, will head the Crooked Letter Interview Series, which features contemporary Mississippi writers. His fiction recently appeared in Fifth Wednesday and was nominated for Best New American Voices.

 

Submissions Now Open

The editors of Briefly Noted have decided to open up submissions of short reviews to our readers at this time! The series features short reviews of books published in 2011 or 2012. We're looking for reviews that are punchy and to the point, around 100-300 words. Send all submissions to prairieschooner@unl.edu with “Briefly Noted" in the subject line. We look forward to hearing from you!

 

(Co-edited by Theodore Wheeler and Claire Harlan-Orsi.)

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