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Briefly Noted

A monthly book review in brief from the staff of Prairie Schooner.

Volume 1, Issue 4. September 2012.


Dawes on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck | Kunkel on Maria Mazziotti Gillan's The Place I Call Home | Orsi on Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? | Wheeler on Shira Nayman's A Mind of Winter


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The Thing Around Your Neck. Anchor, 2010.

Reviewed by Kwame Dawes

It is as if somewhere in some secret meeting for aesthetic policy-making for the contemporary short story writer, a law has been decreed: all short stories must not end, instead they must trail off leaving the reader wanting to know more, wanting to know what happens next and by so doing, by achieving this sense of coitus interrupted, the author has sealed her credentials as a short story writer. No more of that old fashioned business of closure, of dead protagonists, of people emptied of all reasons to wonder about the next moment, or, if you will, endings. There are precious few endings in Chimamanda Adichie's tantalizing short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck. Characters do make decisions--small seemingly insignificant ones--but decisions nonetheless. A Nigerian woman in the US decides, upon hearing that her husband who spends his time between the US and Nigeria has taken a mistress, that she is moving back to Lagos. Another woman finally speaks out against a bullying writing tutor who accuses her of writing unreal, agenda driven stories even though the story is entirely autobiographical. Another woman whose young child has been shot by government henchmen, and who decides to attempt to seek asylum in the US embassy, is insulted by the questioning and decides to walk away from the bid for a visa. Each of these stories is marked by complex plots of layered meaning and nuance. Adichie knows how to juggle several interlocking plot lines and motional threads in a single short story. She does this with deft craft, tremendous control, and what I can only call cunning. But there is one thing that this new decree has given her, a pass on the brilliant ending. I imagine her going to a late draft of each story and simply lopping off a couple of paragraphs from the end. Perhaps this is how we, as readers, need to be tortured, need to be left unstuffed and wanting more. Or perhaps there is a cold vindictiveness in a writer who usually works in the long form where there is ample time for genuine endings, making her taunt us with the notion that each of her stories is really the germ of some grand novel, a novel she has just decided not to bother with. She assures us that if we read her novels, this reading will finally be assuaged. My theory, though, is that this kind of short story is a new trend, a very peculiar and particular style that journals and publishers want. It is a shame. Adichie's best stories ignore this mandate--the way a delicious sexual crush felt by a Nigerian nanny for the African American painter wife of her employer builds to an almost alarming climax, and the collapses in bathos when I is clear that whatever the nanny thought she sensed was indeed neither special nor exclusive. It is a lovely story of subtlety and mild comic sadness. When we finish it, we are finished, bellies full, satisfied and the better for it. But for all my complaining, it is hard not to keep reading Adichie's stories, and harder still not to be impressed by the fulsome evidence of her narrative mastery in these stories.


Maria Mazziotti Gillan. The Place I Call Home. New York Quarterly Books, 2012.

Reviewed by Marianne Kunkel

What a pleasurable read The Place I Call Home is because of its simple diction, ample description, and unfailing poignancy. Gillan has made a career out of writing poems that express her affections for various family members (her parents, spouse, children, and grandchildren) and this book continues this tradition, offering straightforward portraits of loved ones that seem so sincere, vulnerable, and at times harsh despite their good intentions, they can make readers cry. In The Place, the poet’s background as a child of Italian immigrants residing in New Jersey rushes to life through unassuming yet sophisticated details; explaining why her father worked long hours in factories, Gillan’s inclusion of the word “soft” in the phrase “so his children would have the soft lives he never had” makes all the difference. Similarly, in her poem “Why I Worry” to her young granddaughter, Gillan refreshes an overdone topic with an unexpected image of a crow: “I try to make her realize how beautiful she is… / but for now, the voice inside her, that crow, is louder than mine.” Standing out against Gillan’s trademark bittersweet brand are extremely somber poems that address the inadequacies of this wife (and subsequent widow) and mother. As her husband’s debilitating illness becomes unmanageable, Gillan’s patience deteriorates as well; during a sleepless night after she has permanently moved him out of their bedroom, she writes, “I allow myself to see what I have become, / my heart closed against you.” Her candid manner when describing the emotional distance between her and her adult son equally lacks a balancing dose of hope. A Frank O’Hara-type poet who looks no further than personal circumstances for material for her poems, Gillan’s The Place leads with resilience, not shame.


Sheila Heti. How Should a Person Be?: A Novel From Life. Henry Holt, 2012.

Reviewed by Claire Harlan Orsi

In an earlier blog post I cited Sheila Heti’s new novel, How Should a Person Be? as part of a growing movement toward “Reality Fiction”: the choice of a number of contemporary writers to apply the term “novel” to narratives that have an essentially autobiographical, and in many cases anti-fictional, orientation. Heti’s novel, even more so than her other Reality-Fiction oriented contemporaries—-David Shields, Ben Lerner, Eileen Myles, Miranda July and Lena Dunham, among others—-exemplifies both the possibilities and the limits of this movement.

Finding it “tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story,” Heti has turned to her own life to supply the material for her fiction. She focuses on her relations with a small group of her artist friends in her home city of Toronto, concentrating in particular on the evolution of her tumultuous friendship with the painter Margaux Williamson. The two share a commitment to pushing past intellectual falsities, to creating art of ethical and aesthetic worth. Despite being at least a decade out of college the two of them remind me of 19 year old liberal arts students—and that’s a good thing. Heti and Williamson’s lives, such as they appear in the novel, are a rigorous exercise in what it means to never grow up, to never lose your sense of wonder at the world. This wonder comes through in dozens of frankly brilliant moments. Here’s Sheila, looking into the mirror: “I make my eyes as world-weary as possible, like a fashion model’s, then I think, You’re a charlatan. You love everything you were ever given.”

I copied down those lines and most of the others in the book, finding that Heti’s titular quest to be strikingly relevant in form (if not substance) to my own. How Should a Person Be? should my ideal book, since it combines my two favorite genres: literary fiction and self-help. However—and this is where my problem with Heti’s novel becomes a problem with Reality Fiction in general—I found the novel both not “novelly” enough and not “self-helpy” enough to fully satisfy either of my generic needs. Since the book bills itself as a novel it’s probably fairer to focus on the former deficiency. So what does “not novelly enough” mean? In short (and you really deserve the long version, but the long version isn’t suited for this space), there’s not enough story. Fictional artifice may be tiresome and dated, but it’s valuable for a reason. There’s a reason, in other words, that no number of self-help treatises are going to teach me as much about relationships as a book by, say, Flaubert or Lorrie Moore. A character in a fully realized fictional universe can answer, in the process of simply living her fake life, the question “How Should I Be?” much more meaningfully than the (admittedly wonderful) ponderings of her meta-fictional authorial counterpart. Heti’s novel is a formal delight that doesn’t do much to replace my deep-seated need for more conventional narratives.


Shira Nayman. A Mind of Winter. Akashic, 2012.

Reviewed by Ted Wheeler

A post-war mystery set mostly in Shanghai, Long Island, and London in the 1950s, A Mind of Winter offers plenty in the way of sex and drugs, mistaken identity, and ill-fated love affairs. These are characters who believe, explicitly or not, that the rules of society do not apply to them. The first section in this three-pronged narrative follows Christine as she plumbs the depths of an opium-induced spiral, chronicling her journey from glamorous state balls and the discomfiture of quid pro quo desire, to opium dens and the streets, where she becomes complicit in the operation of a child prostitution ring. In these sections, Nayman provides her take on the power of forbidden acts. Having been converted to transgression as a girl herself, Christine compares sex acts to “bringing about the end of the world,” a women or girl allowing that her “own life, [her] own being, became focused on the musical flames of the night.” In some ways it’s an odd way to begin a novel at its most shocking apex, then working back to more tame themes, troubled marriages, love affairs. The other characters Nayman draws into focus can’t keep up this velocity. Marilyn, an accomplished photographer who deliberates over the impact her work has on the real world and struggles to create again—-“It was an old instinct which set my fingers to itching, that fierce longing to feel the weight of the camera in my hand. Leave it be, said an inner voice. Let the world get along without you.”—-and Oscar, a mysterious millionaire who is highly reminiscent of Jay Gatsby. In fact, as we flit through the grand fetes of Oscar’s Long Island estate, it’s almost like reading The Great Gatsby fan fiction—-and that’s not such a bad thing. The novel works best when exploring its settings. Whether it’s the dangerous back alleys of Shanghai at night, or otherworldly party scenes on Long Island, the settings crafted by Nayman really shine. Ultimately, A Mind of Winter is about the deceits we believe—-about ourselves and those we desire—-in order to believe in love at face value. So much of the lying and trickery in A Mind of Winter is directed internally, giving the sense that falling in love is less about fooling others, and more about fooling yourself.


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. … Marianne Kunkel is the Managing Editor of Prairie Schooner and a Ph.D. student in poetry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, with a specialization in women’s and gender studies. Her chapbook, The Laughing Game, is recently out from Finishing Line Press. … 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. ... Theodore Wheeler’s fiction recently appeared in The Kenyon Review, Boulevard, Confrontation and The Cincinnati Review. He lives in Omaha with his wife and their two daughters, blogs at The Uninitiated, and is Web Editor for Prairie Schooner.

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 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.)