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PS: Briefly Noted

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

Volume 1, Issue 1. June 2012.

Wheeler on Richard Burgin’s Shadow Traffic and Ron Rash’s The Cove | Dawes on Teju Cole’s Open City and Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow | Harlan-Orsi on emily m. danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post | Das on Adil Jussawalla’s Trying to Say Goodbye | Crews on Bruce Snider’s Paradise, Indiana

Richard Burgin. Shadow Traffic. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

Reviewed by Theodore Wheeler

At a time when the market values short story collections that exhibit virtuosity rather than consistency of voice and style—if the collection cannot be labeled as a novel—Richard Burgin’s versatility plays well. Shadow Traffic (Burgin’s fifteenth book) was crafted by a veteran prose stylist comfortable working in many different styles and well-versed in narrative strategy. The collection ranges across speculative fiction, farce, parable, lyrical realism, and horror; its writing is both heart-felt and menacing, and often takes wonderful turns toward the whimsical. All the while, Burgin provides an unnervingly honest portrayal of middle age solitude and lust. Self-delusion weighs on these characters until circumstance forces them to see themselves in clearer light. The notion of being forced to play against oneself makes Shadow Traffic a successful and worthwhile book. A ladies' man cast as doting father. A middle-aged librarian caught in the crossfire of a pharmaceutical war waged by two secret-societies. A collective of mediocre artists and thinkers who narrow the scope of their worldview until they can call themselves great, then laud this as justice. These are stories about the strange people we sometimes end up connected to when we’re alone: how you can’t wait to get away from dangerous or annoying strangers when you’re with them, yet you somehow miss them when they’re gone because they’ve changed the way you see the world. The best stories, like “Mission Beach” and “Caesar” and “Memorial Day” and “Single-Occupant House” play with how we see ourselves in the world, and with how our relationships and social structures end up functioning as a “collective denial of death.” The lonely and the strange in these stories—the drug dealers, the mediocre, the unlovable and unemployable—are bereft of this essential currency, because they are alone.

Teju Cole. Open City. Random House, 2012.

Reviewed by Kwame Dawes

I am convinced that Nigerians are somehow at the vanguard of a complex redefining of the African novel in English, a process fully engaged in by novelists from all over Africa, but as with many things enmeshed in a construction of a global modernity, Nigerians are dominant. And they are brilliant, distinctive and complex in what they are doing. Teju Cole is one of this crew; a novelist who with boldfaced audacity takes on New York with the passion, assurance and insight of someone who has concluded that that city is the city of immigrants, the city of reinvention, the city of cosmopolitan angst and pleasure. Open City is an ode to the city, a novel that assumes the pacing and tone of an meditative elegy. The narrative suggests itself with slow subtlety—a Nigerian man recovering from the seemingly ordinary trauma of a mugging, which turns out to be the poetic trigger for deeper and more complex traumas of his past and present. At the center of the work is an elegantly and painfully crafted lament to a dead mentor, a Japanese doctor whose death captures the peculiar loneliness and alienation that is a sophisticated dance in this urban space, a dance between a need for community and a need for isolation. This dance is the one that consumes the narrator, one that allows him to be both a Nigerian and a New York citizen (America has nothing to do with this). Beautifully written, we see New York anew through the eyes of a man whose brain is full of encyclopedic knowledge of the history and present of the architectural, physical and psychic landscape of the space. The novel is a slow read and the hooks of narrative take a long time to sink in. The wait is worth it. Is this an African novel? To say “no” would require that we declare that Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a Congolese novel.

emily m. danforth. The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Balzer + Bray, 2012.

Reviewed by Claire Harlan-Orsi

It’s a great time to pick up recent UNL alum emily danforth’s warm-hearted and sassily-voiced debut novel, as danforth is back this month to teach a workshop at the Nebraska Summer Writer’s Conference. (See her pre-conference interview here). Set half in Miles City, Montana, and half at a fictional Christian institution called God’s Promise, danforth’s novel might seem like a traditional coming of age story, following protagonist Cameron Post through furtive romances, shifting friendships and hours of lifeguarding. Except that “traditional” (i.e. “straight”) protagonists don’t have to spend the next half of their allotted novels at institutions designed to correct their wayward tendencies. Cameron’s aunt (who raises her after the death of her parents in a freak accident in the novel’s first pages) feels the need to send her charge to just such a place. The central conflict of this extremely empathetic novel, then, is not whether Cameron can be “cured” of her lesbianism (the character is too self-aware to believe this possible for even a moment), but whether and how Cameron can maintain and develop her sense of self in an environment determined to quash it.

danforth has said she spent a lot of time developing Cameron’s voice, and it shows. In Cameron’s telling, the first part of the novel has the quality of a perpetual adolescent summer: “We lay flat on our backs, our feet planted and our knees in the air, the just-setting sun coloring the remaining clouds in plum and navy with Pepto Bismol-pink underbellies and the sky behind them every candy-colored shade of orange, from circus peanut to sugared jelly slice.” As this passage suggests, danforth does a fantastic job of making place come alive. Characters are always interacting with the land in startlingly specific ways, whether it’s spreading range cake for the cattle or copper sulfate over the lake. The range of characters that circle Cameron are rendered with compassion, humor and precision. As other reviewers have noted, danforth doesn’t resort to caricature in constructing the so-called “bad guys” of the conversion camp. Instead, she explores the tensions that come when people trying to do “what’s best” end up doing harm. The Miseducation of Cameron Post, while marketed as a YA novel, is a fantastic read for teens and adults alike.

Tayari Jones. Silver Sparrow. Algonquin Books, 2012.

Reviewed by Kwame Dawes

The plot of Silver Sparrow is a gem. It has a built-in engine for narrative unfolding, and character development and discovery. It lends itself to remarkable twists and turns, it is constantly haunted by a sense of impending and inevitable catastrophe, it feels like a work whose ending we can predict but one that constantly surprises us, and it is shot right through with the most basic and seductive of qualities for the most consuming stories: gossip. And by gossip I mean the potential for scandal. One can actually imagine these characters being the subject of a sophisticated and moving HBO documentary—talking heads, visceral anger, tears, numbness and a phalanx of sociologists and shrinks. The thing is, it is a work of unquestioning literary ambition and power. Tayari Jones can write. Her characters, especially her narrators assert their identity and quirks quickly, vividly, and without fanfare or alarm. Her sense of place—in this case the Southern Black city and rural space of recent times—is pitch perfect and wonderfully and lovingly presented. I can summarize the plot easily: a man has two families—two wives, two daughters and two homes. He maintains them for almost eighteen years. One family knows of the other. The novel is about what happens when the other family discovers the knowing family. Jones' novel is a study in consummate craft—the way she manages disclosure, controls plot development, handles her two narrators, complicates our feelings of loyalty to each character again and again. The result is one of the most impressive novels I have read in a while. It is an African American novel in the way that Langston Hughes might have hoped to see emerge, a novel fully committed to the proposition that rather than being a limiting factor, the very African Americanness of the work constitutes a limitless vista of possibility and complexity. Jones is collecting awards for her fiction at an impressive pace. She deserves them all and more.

Adil Jussawalla. Trying to Say Goodbye. Almost Island Books, 2012.

Reviewed by Nabina Das.

Trying to Say Goodbye is a comeback collection Jussawalla published after 35 years. One of the illustrious Clearing House collective members, a contemporary of “Bombay poets” Arun Kolatkar, Dilip Chitre, Nissim Ezekiel, et al, Jussawalla’s work shines with the sharpness of urban impatience, meditative cynicism and a palpable physical nervousness. As readers we know he says “trying,” but a goodbye from this poet is a distant word in the world of Indian writing in English. The poems, spread over 78 pages, cannot be summarized thematically because none of them are, in fact, around one particular theme or central thesis. We have poems that hark back to his Poona days, the period of architectural apprenticeship in England, and his Bombay work and stay. Little wonder then, in “Woman in a Landscape”, Jussawalla builds up an archetypal image that overlaps geography and persona:

I still have the pictures: a woman, very old,
Leading a cow, very skinny. In print after print,
There’s no trace of landscape, of country.

“Poona” packs sardonic humor. It’s the vision of a country he has accepted in all its strange hybrid paradox:

In Bapu Cottage
a man on a mat
looks like a collection
of sticks
with spectacles on it.

The Aga Khan’s mother
is put on a chair.

The cream
from Military Dairy
comes in a cart
pulled by a mule.

The British, clearly, will never leave.

The title poem in this collection perhaps is the most jarring one, given an on-the-face attitude, a pretense to a cavalier tone, and an assortment of images almost outrageous and unrelated. This is not to say the poem does not do its job. In fact, the impatience and a slight hint of irascibility–after the first couplet starts out in the spirit of a ghazal’s opening, rather serene and lyrical–in the stanzas channel the reader’s attention in a rapid conglomeration of ideas. And we understand exactly when Jussawalla blurts out:

I mangle easily now, a bad accident,
and I want my daddy.

With the fifth is the bombshell I’m ready to throw
and you look like you’re ready to spit.
I won’t say goodbye, for the hell of it.

We won’t either, to Jussawalla and his poetry. After all, he himself has given us the reason for it, laced in brilliant sarcasm in “I Recognise the Graphos after More than Fifty Years”:

As for my English – the language I mean –
which also spoiled some of my plans…

Ron Rash. The Cove. Ecco, 2012.

Reviewed by Theodore Wheeler

Set in World War I-era, North Carolina Appalachia, The Cove deals with a musician’s struggle to avoid anti-German violence in the rural south and a young woman’s difficulty living down the stigma of a birthmark in a superstitious town. Laurel Shelton is thought to be a witch because of her birthmark and that she lives in a dark, remote cove. When she goes to town, people spit and throw rotten eggs at her. Laurel’s days are so lonely that she wonders if “she herself might be a ghost.” Her brother, Hank, is also physically marked, as he lost a hand while fighting “Huns” on the Western Front in Flanders. The town they live near, Mars Hill, embraces violence and has a dark history itself, where men have been murdered “with less conscience than killing two snakes.” Things start to brighten for Laurel and Hank when they’re joined by Walter, a brilliant flautist who stumbles into the cove looking for help and stays thereafter to put up a fence and dig a well. Walter also is marked as malformed—he is mute. An often beautiful and compelling novel, Rash is at his best when depicting the landscape of the isolated cove itself, its rocky cliffs, the ghostly bare limbs of a chestnut grove wiped out by blight, the patches of sky in the canopy where near-extinct Carolina Parakeets persist. The characters are as at home in this scenery as they are with each other, toiling to turn the desolate, unforgiving cove into a nourishing home. It’s a situation ripe for disruption and conflict. The Cove, a lyrical and deeply symbolic book, is on par with other recent novels set during the war, notably Andrea Barrett’s The Air We Breathe and Andrew Krivak’s The Sojourn.

Bruce Snider. Paradise, Indiana. Pleiades Press, 2012.

Reviewed by James Crews

I highly recommend getting a hold of Bruce Snider’s latest collection of poems, Paradise, Indiana and reading it back-to-back with his first book, the Felix Pollak Prize-winning The Year We Studied Women, published in 2003 by the University of Wisconsin Press. These two volumes are not only inextricably linked in both place and subject matter; they are also each, in their own ways, an essential addition to any collection of LGBT literature. That said, Snider’s poems are also just plain good. Though his more playful debut sticks to childhood for the most part, exploring what it means to grow up gay (and simply to grow up), his second book—winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize—takes up an adolescence spent in the open landscapes of Indiana (“I could feel/the sky crush down on me . . .”). Paradise, Indiana also fearlessly recounts the speaker’s troubled romance with his cousin, Nick, who later commits suicide. But if the subject matter sounds too heavy, not to worry: Snider is a master of the quiet moment, his memory-driven narratives slowly unfolding until the accumulation becomes a kind of redemption, which is what all poetry should aspire to.



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. Nabina Das has a novel, Footprints in the Bajra (Cedar Books), and an MFA from Rutgers University. She is at work on a poetry collection, Into the Migrant City, and is a guest blogger for Prairie Schooner. Her own blog is nabinadas13.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. … 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.

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