Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Briefly Noted - July 2013

Monthly book reviews in brief from the staff of Prairie Schooner and associates.
Fire on the Mountain

Vol. 2 Issue 4. July 2013. Ed. James Madison Redd.

 

The Home Jar: Stories by Nancy Zafris | Reviewed by Nick White

The Peripatetic Coffin by Ethan Rutherford | Reviewed by Jacqueline H. Harris

Fire on the Mountain by Edward Abbey | Reviewed by Jack Hill ~ A short-shrifted review

 

Zafris, Nancy. The Home Jar: Stories. Switchgrass Books, 2013.

Reviewed by Nick White

“Behind the brain’s curtains,” supposes the narrator in “The Home Jar,” the titular story in Nancy Zafris’s latest collection, “runs a pleasure that is against your own will.” This ruminative statement resides at the center of these clear-eyed stories; that is, characters at war with their own hearts. Zafris’s fiction invigorates this traditional conflict. Whether her characters are reuniting old lovers, fashioning a wax figure of a young girl in a coma, following a group of drunken Americans in Rome, or stealing a llama farm, Zafris bestows them with her own special blend of humanity, loneliness, and wry humor. Indeed, what she accomplishes in just a few pages of story would have taken a lesser writer an entire novel.

Throughout her beautiful collection, a feeling of unease haunts the periphery. For instance, in “Prix Fixe,” Miller, a disgraced chef struggling in his new life of obscurity, looks out at the Ohio woods where the “fog in the dark hollows […] evaporating as he watched, captured the sensation breathing on him late nights, a feeling growing ever vaguer that visited sometimes when he was writing in his journal and found himself addressing an entry to his old friend” (33). Charles Baxter would call such a moment “the experience of the truth caught in midair.” I call it—quite simply—some damn fine writing.

More than fifteen years after Zafris published the story collection The People I Know, which won the Flannery O’Connor Prize, her newest work, The Home Jar, proves well worth the wait.

 

Ethan Rutherford. The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories. Ecco, 2013.

Reviewed by Jacqueline H. Harris

Take the arbitrary death of innocence from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the desperate pursuit of intangible self-actualization from Moby Dick, and the all-consuming angst and turmoil of a Cormac McCarthy novel, and you will get a sense for what Ethan Rutherford brews in his debut, The Peripatetic Coffin. The set of eight stories does what few short story collections manage in giving readers a series of distinct narrative voices in a variety of suspense-filled predicaments while collectively meditating on a united theme—what it means to be an anti-hero. Male protagonists are confronted with death, the threat of death, violence, and their inability to influence fate or their relegated roles within society. Rutherford’s metaphoric and literal depictions of the lost man at sea threads a well-paced, tense, and character-driven journey to define the self when circumstances seek to define it for you.

The opening tale whets readers’ appetites as Ward Lumpkin and a crew of Civil War misfit soldiers man a crank station on a doomed confederate submarine, posing the question of the value of sacrificing your life if your country never deemed it valuable to begin with. Rutherford knows his limits—writing subjective female characters—evidenced in relegating the few women within the collection to secondary, stereotypical roles like sexualized victim or flat-sided siren. The wealth of male leads both young and old, however, offers more than enough conflict and despair to keep readers occupied. From “The Saint Anna,” a narrative of a mutinous crew on the edge of sanity after being stuck for two years in Artic ice floes 2,000 miles from Bolshevik-era Russia, to “John, for Christmas,” the tale of a father who yearns to cut ties from his 30-year-old depressed and manipulative son and his self-imposed mid-life crisis that is destroying his marriage, to “Camp Winnesaka,” the darkly humorous story of a camp counselor who is willing to risk anything—including the lives of his campers—to assert his role as leader, The Peripatetic Coffin promises a highly thought-provoking and entertaining read that will leave you both wanting to read more and convinced (if Rutherford is anything like his characters) that someone should offer him a hug. They would likely be rewarded with a swift head-butt if they tried.

 

Edward Abbey. Fire on the Mountain. Avon Books, 1962. | A short-shrifted review

Reviewed by Jack Hill

Edward Abbey's novel Fire on the Mountain, which is based on John Prather's successful 1957 protest against the U.S. government and an attempted forced land sale for the construction of a missile testing range, recounts a fictional New Mexican rancher's resistance against the destruction of land and wild places. With authentic prose and a call-to-arms narrative engine, Abbey snaps the reader up into a philosophy common in his other books: one person can make a difference. The 50-year-old novel reads as fresh as contemporary nature writing because of Abbey's unique descriptive eye for the Southwest, which seizes readers and begs of them to experience the desert first hand: “We drove on across the salt flats of an ancient lake-bed, where the heat shimmered up in the palpable waves. Through the layers of heat and light I watched the dislocated outlines of the mountain ranges flow together, floating on a yellow sea of haze. In that country, fantasy and mirage were always present.” Fire on the Mountain persists as a necessary, worthwhile excursion for contemporary readers who may be more familiar with Abbey's 1975 environmentalist novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, or his 1968 nonfiction book, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. Abbey's timeless story inspires and summons our inner guardian of the land against the behemoths.

Nick White's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Indiana Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of Ohio State's creative writing program, he is currently working toward a Ph.D. in English at the University of Nebraska-LincolnJacqueline H. Harris is a Ph.D. candidate in nineteenth-century British literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She specializes in children’s and coming-of-age literature and has earned certifications in Women’s & Gender Studies and Nineteenth-Century Interdisciplinary Studies. Jack Hill is a forthcoming creative writing M.A. student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and edits Crossed Out Magazine.

Submission Guidelines: The editors of Briefly Noted welcome submissions of short reviews from our readers. The series features short reviews of books published in 2012 or 2013; however, we occasionally publish short-shrifted reviews of significant older works under the radar. We're looking for reviews that are punchy and to the point, around 100 to 300 words. Send all submissions to pswebed@unl.edu with “Briefly Noted" in the subject line. We look forward to hearing from you in brief!

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