Briefly Noted

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

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Volume 2, Issue 1. January 2013.


The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley | Reviewed by Claire Harlan-Orsi
When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz | Reviewed by Caitie Leibman
Lots and Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen | Reviewed by Kwame Dawes


The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley
Reviewed by Claire Harlan-Orsi

If this isn’t already one of the 36 or 12 or 527 Types of Plots (man vs. nature, crime of vengeance, etc.) craft books always talk about, it should be: “history comes back.” This is the form of novels such as Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Byatt’s Possession and the subject of this appreciation, a 1981 opus by David Bradley titled The Chaneysville Incident.

John Washington is a brilliant historian who specializes in the study of mass atrocities and disdains what he sneeringly refers to as “local history.” He’s a young black scholar with a fraught relationship with his white girlfriend. A scholarship took him away from his hometown in rural Pennsylvania at a young age, to a career in the academy and a teaching job in Philadelphia. But a phone call asking him to attend to a dying father figure brings back. Going to “Old Jack”’s cabin over a bridge that winter has rendered impassable, right next to his family home where his mother still lives, forces him to confront a welter of realities: his brother’s premature death, his town’s history of racism and lynching and most importantly his father’s apparent suicide.

The reigniting of a mystery around the latter causes John to plunge deeply into that local history he’s always avoided, right into personal territory, the very avoidance of which had strained his relationship with his girlfriend to the breaking point. John fills hundreds of his infamous index cards with information he gathers about his family’s past, information that leads him to the story of his great-grandfather, an escaped slave named CK Washington who played a key role liberating slaves in the South.

Bradley’s novel dramatizes different kinds of knowledge: the sort of knowledge that allows an escaped slave to know how to navigate miles of forest, the sort of knowledge that allows John to pedantically describe everything he knows about the invention of the telephone, knowledge that is gleaned from facts transcribed from documents and knowledge that is intuitive. It would be easy for the reader to assume the novel glorifies intuitive knowledge, for this sort is indeed what John must learn. But in its wildly learned, dialectical structure it is just as ambitious in its use of information as Moby Dick or War and Peace, melding history and psychology to show how inextricable facts and emotions really are.


When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz
Reviewed by Caitie Leibman

In her early 30s, Natalie Diaz is already shaping a legacy with rich and valuable work. The poet celebrates her first collection this year: When My Brother Was an Aztec, a critical and raw first-hand examination of reservation issues including disease, addiction, and poverty that manages to maintain a whimsy in its approach to heavy topics.

Raised among Spanish, Pima, and Mojave influences, Diaz works in other ways not to produce culture, but to save it. She directs a Mojave language preservation program that fights in “a race against time,” as explained in a PBS NewsHour special earlier this year. This desperation to capture meaning is present throughout her collection: she grapples to understand how her family has navigated their challenges—including her brother’s drug problems—whether by clamoring to show love and support or falling silent in recognition of the inability to help.

Diaz shies from no mythology in this exploration: she sacrifices in the Aztec style with haunting immediacy and invokes Helen of Troy’s famed beauty with ease. The blended layers of tradition force the reader to widen and narrow the eye over and over. For instance, the scene in which Lot whispers to his wife, “Baby, forget about it,” as their suffering neighbors lie “begging her name” recalls Diaz’s sometimes selfish urge to help drag her brother away from his problems. As she writes in “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs”: “But who were you kidding? You took him in / with no grand dreams of salvation, but only to ease / the guilt of never having tried.”

Diaz paints vivid, broken images that capture both hurt and longing from her life. Here’s to hoping her work continues to dig at these important subjects with such grace for years to come.


Lots and Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen
Reviewed by Kwame Dawes

Anna Quindlen’s meditation on aging, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, comes at the perfect time for her, she sees the potential horrors ahead and is agile and hopeful enough to imagine a life of rewards, pleasures and heroic, satisfying and graceful aging. It is in this sense that Quindlen is seductive, readable and appealing. She refuses to accept what the cynical would call the inevitable: the existential and Ecclesiastes notion of human futility—all is vanity, a chasing after the wind. Quindlen has had her share of tragedy but she writes from the position of achievement and comfort– she is confident about who she is, and we like her for it. At the end of the day, though, she is truest about one thing: that she is inventing her hope through a combination of willful ignorance and dogged optimism. She is willing to doubt, willing to remain superficial even as she advocates the value of going deeper, and she is willing to live in a world of contradiction. Above all she understands that her act of writing is her salvation, it is her way, through articulation, to ward off her greatest fears. This writing is direct, simple, accessible and full of the everyday humor that seems honest, true, intimate. It is what we like about Oprah, about the View, about our food show stars: they are brilliant at constructing exactly the life that makes us think we know them. We enjoy the illusion. There is an art in this.


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 with “Briefly Noted” in the subject line. We look forward to hearing from you!