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The Prairie Schooner Blog

Briefly Noted

A monthly book review in brief from PS staff and associates

Volume 1, Issue 5. October 2012.

 

Redd on Michael Kardos' The Three Day Affair | Leibman on Frankie Condon's I Hope I Join the Band | Dawes on Victor LaValle's Big Machine | Jones on Joy Castro's Hell or High Water | Orsi on Evan Connell's Mrs. Bridge

 


Michael Kardos. The Three-Day Affair. Mysterious Press, 2012.

Reviewed by James Madison Redd

The three endings of Michael Kardos’ The Three-Day Affair are a trifecta. The bet is that the reader keeps the book open, even though the stakes change. The reader might bank on what the publisher calls a thriller, but the call is off. The structure of this novel, in the hands of an author who honors the needs of the individual story more than the needs of a genre, is more mysterious than one name can contain, than a bookmaker can calculate before the race is run. I’m not just speaking of plot twists, the lame horse winning the race; I’m talking of ghastly event distorting self-conception and of unceasing time circumventing the power of conscience: of the “good” guy doing the things he (or you for that matter) would never expect he could do, and the horror of having to deal with the consequences alone and unpunished. Will’s moral agony is not a result of factitious sin as is Raskolnikov’s; it is due to a calamity of the present: one is unable to undo the misconceived choice. So Will as narrator reorders time to reverse his transgression. The kidnapping resolved, Will recounts to an imagined reader the two other stories he wouldn’t tell his wife. After the narrative’s initial affair leads to a shocking undertaking, he ceases his narrative on the threshold of a first trespass, one from the distant past, an innocent place he’d love to remain. Bet on this novel to win you over.


Frankie Condon. I Hope I Join the Band: Narrative, Affiliation, and Antiracist Rhetoric. Utah State University Press, 2012.

Reviewed by Caitie Leibman

This fascinating blend of scholarly work, personal narrative, and correspondence offers a provocative discussion of “white readiness for antiracism.” Condon—white herself—explains that the work of whites in antiracist activism must be inherently different from the work done by peoples of color, and that a careful examination of this distinction has only just begun.

While I Hope I Join the Band is no instruction manual for the important work Condon describes, she deftly demonstrates each concept for the reader as she describes it. For instance, Condon insists that we consider the importance of narrative in the writing classroom; meanwhile, she models the practice by threading a seamless and frank personal history into her work. Her self-examination also encourages readers to reflect on their own interactions, reinforcing her suggestion that change begin with an inward turn.

As a reader, I do feel more hope than despair navigating the discussion Condon has opened; the eager and blunt tone of the work tells me this was her intention. Condon encourages us to embrace those (perhaps uncomfortable) moments that jar us from any unconscious performance of and interaction with racial identities. Because of this work, the reader is primed for such moments from which we can begin to “join the band.”


Victor LaValle. Big Machine. Spiegel & Grau, 2009.

Reviewed by Kwame Dawes

It is not so much that Victor Lavalle does not write with a sensitivity to the magic inherent in our temporal world, or what the Yoruba call the Aye, but that what he achieves in his novel Big Machine is more akin to Science Fiction than magical realism. But it is not Science Fiction but a work of hyper fiction in which a parallel historical universe exists where a shadowy organization committed to the benevolent amelioration of the lives of the downtrodden and abject people of the African American community--people who carry secrets of drug addiction, criminal activity, prostitution, and despicable acts--devolves into a cult of absurd practices that ultimately is driven by the predictable hunger for power and control. LaValle writes this world through a character who is so finely and frightfully believable, and whose narrative impels us to wonder at the credibility of a story that we want to view as fantastic. Mos Def would be perfect for the part, no one else. Victor LaValle shares, though, Marquez's comic view of the world, along with his penchant for detail--the wounds of his characters are archetypal, bum legs, obesity, alcoholism, heroin addiction, psychological instability brought on by sexual trauma, and much more. And yet these are exquisite characters of flawed and elegant humanity. LaValle has received high praise for his three books of fiction, all of it deserving, and Big Machine is a marvelous achievement.


Joy Castro. Hell or High Water. Thomas Dunne Books, 2012.

Reviewed by Eric Jones

What makes Joy Castro’s debut thriller Hell or High Water stand out among the rabble of similar novels is the refreshingly honest, if not flawed, perspective of its narrator, Nola Céspedes. As she toils away on an investigative piece for the Times-Picayune about the thirteen hundred registered sex offenders who went off the grid in wake of Hurricane Katrina, she becomes embroiled in a personal struggle to comprehend the anguish and torment of sexual assault in a racially divided city.

There is no shortage of mystery novels set in Post-Katrina New Orleans. Even today, while writing this, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released Sara Gran’s new book, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, a book which features a similarly saucy sleuth on the hunt for a murderer in the Crescent City. Where Hell or High Water gets it right, however, is refusing to lavish in the drama of the investigation and instead, to entice the reader down a much longer and darker journey into the mind of its protagonist.

It is a treat to watch Castro walk the narrow strut that bridges a Thomas Harris-like psychological suspense with a poignancy of vision into life in this so-called “post-racial” America. The novel neatly stitches together the messy period that paradoxically sees the election of America’s first black president and the reckless exclusion of federal aid in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Hell or High Water manages to cleverly envelope its whodunnit narrative into a deeper examination of the fallacies exposed when the debris has been cleared away. It will exhaust you, even as it flails you along uncontrollably, inexorably, towards its vicious finale. The parallels Castro draws between the deep and personal invasion that results from sexual assault and the societal stripping of entitlement that comes with racial discrimination will keep the hurricane blowing in your ears long after the wind has died.

 


Short Shrifted: Significant Books Under the Radar: Evan S. Connell. Mrs. Bridge. 1959. Counterpoint, 2009.

Reviewed by Claire Harlan Orsi

I’ve added this 1959 novel to my list of favorites; it’s a masterpiece of crystalline characterization and brutally funny irony. “Country club matron” India Bridge spends her days crocheting mufflers “in case anybody wanted one,” arguing with her children over pantyhose and table manners, trying to avoid black people and generally wondering how to occupy herself. This is the dramatic enactment of The Theory of the Leisure Class, which India stumbles upon one day in a bookstore and leafs through somewhat resentfully, without changing her ways. “She spent a great deal of time staring into space, oppressed by the sense that she was waiting,” Connell writes. “But waiting for what? She did not know.”

Waiting around doesn’t usually make for compelling fiction, and in fact Connell’s novel was rejected many times over for its perceived lack of plot. Thankfully Connell didn’t cave and rewrite; how else but in a plot-less novel could he have explored so successfully the crucial themes of WASP fiction: boredom, unfulfillment, shame? Connell’s restraint amounts to an aesthetic of repression; as Mark Oppenheimer writes in a 2005 Believer appreciation, in Connell’s writing “everything is in the gaps, the hidden hand.” Connell joins form and content through a series of terse vignettes that wouldn’t be out of place among contemporary “flash fiction” venues. He suggests moments of miniscule friction, then lets our identification with the character of Mrs. Bridge do the rest. While reading a scene in which Mrs. Bridge watches two high school students dancing in a suggestive way I felt such total shame on her behalf that I couldn’t help but believe I’d fully internalized India’s consciousness.

My mentor Gerry Shapiro, who went to the same high school as Connell, recalls in a 1987 Ploughshares piece discovering Connell’s work as a teenager and finding it “the most precise use of language, the cleverest collection of ironies I had ever encountered.” I like to imagine Gerry, who passed away around this time last year, chuckling at such wonderfully evoked dialogues as Mrs. Bridge’s conversations with the ponderous Van Metres, a couple that possessed “the disconcerting habit of believing what people said.”

 

Contributors

Head of the Crooked Letter Interview Series, James Madison Redd interviewed Kardos for the Schooner blog last month. Redd’s fiction recently appeared in Fifth Wednesday and Thumbnail Magazine. ...Caitie Leibman is an M.A. student in creative nonfiction at UNL. She edits and writes for the UNL Nebraska Transportation Center and coaches competitive speech at Doane College. ...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. ...Eric Jones is a writer originally from Centerville, Georgia. He serves as the Web Editor for Prairie Schooner and can be found most days toiling over a piece of writing, running the Nook desk at Barnes and Noble or walking around his neighborhood with his loveable mutt, Tortuga. Jones and his wife, poet Hali F. Sofala, live in Lincoln, Nebraska. ...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.

Submissions Now Open

Briefly Noted is now open to reader submissions! 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 300 words. Send all submissions to prairieschooner@unl.edu with “Briefly Noted" in the subject line. We look forward to hearing from you!

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