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Briefly Noted

A monthly book review in brief from PS staff and associates

Volume 1, Issue 6. November 2012.


Dawes on Sadie Jones' Small Wars | Moritz on Eddie Chuculate's Cheyenne Madonna | Orsi on John Brandon's Citrus County | Parms on Amy Leach's Things That Are


Sadie Jones. Small Wars. Harper, 2010.

Reviewed by Kwame Dawes

We will accept that Sadie Jones is a romantic. But this is a crudity, almost an accusation. It suggests naïveté, light-weight sentimentality and something like a propensity towards unfounded optimism. Thing is, none of those things describe Jones. At worst we can say that, given the choice, she will choose the more hopeful end. That's about the worst of it. Beyond that what we have is a writer unafraid of the most difficult and harrowing narratives of domesticity, public life and in this novel--Small Wars--military life and geopolitical concerns. Set partly in Britain and mostly in Cyprus just before the Suez Canal wars of the late fifties and during the ragged tail end of British colonial rule in the trouble Greek state, Small Wars follows the life of a young, talented and painfully British Sandhurst-trained senior officer and his wife and twin infant daughters as they deal with what turns out to be a quite emotionally challenging posting in Cyprus--one filled with war crimes, bloody skirmishes against insurgents, terrorism, sexual intrigue and the complications of a marriage between two people who find it impossible to talk to each other. This impossibility is not the product of a dysfunctional relationship per se, but that of a culture of tutored restraint full of codes of silence, propriety and stoicism. The phrase "stiff upper lip" occurs several times throughout the novel, and rarely with irony. If one is seeking an involved study of the political implications of the British occupation of Cyprus, and if one would like a balanced view of the nature of this occupation, it won't be found here. This is a story told fully from the perspective of the British, and only a handful of rather insignificant bit characters from Cyprus make an appearance in the work. They are inscrutable shadows, eyes watching, natives who could easily be enemies and terrorists or not. In this sense, Jones joins a tradition of colonial literature that produced films like Out of Africa, African Queen and so on. She is more sanguine about the "natives" than Conrad is in his Heart of Darkness, but the bottom line is that at the end of the day, the colonized space is merely a backdrop for a very English drama about patriotism, conscience and love. It is a lovely novel--remarkable for the care for detail, the research that must have gone into it, and especially remarkable for the wonderfully unsettling twists and turns of plot that revolve around the basic question: what will such and such character do? Jones knows how to throw up red herrings and create decoys and diversions, such that we remain constantly engaged throughout. Jones is simply compelling and most credible as a narrator--she assumes the novelist's posture of being incredibly knowledgeable and in command of her story with impressive assurance. Small Wars is a lovely read: painful, troubling, disquieting yet hopeful. She can be allowed the love conquers all bromide of the work because, in the end, despite what we are allowed, we are really not comforted by the notion. Bad things, we know, keep happening. Jones knows we know this. She does not have to say it.

Eddie Chuculate. Cheyenne Madonna. Black Sparrow Press, 2010.

Reviewed by Shane Moritz

The seven stories in Eddie Chuculate’s debut, Cheyenne Madonna, are damn good; it's a bildungsroman of sorts, charting the emergence of a charismatic creation named Jordan Coolwater. Coolwater is the last in the family line of an infamous fraternity of hard-drinking Native Americans, who introduced booze to Oklahoma back when it was still an Indian Territory (pre-1907). Full of ripe 70s and 80s detail in and around Oklahoma projects so malnourished the squirrels nibble contentedly on dog turds, Chuculate proves himself to be a deft storyteller whose tenderness and humor transcends a gritty milieu that often feels like it was ripped out of a brown paper bag in a gutter.

The best scene in the book captures this rough-and-tumble spirit and it takes place inside a Plymouth Voyager speeding across the Arizona desert. There's a crash instigated by a mentally ill girl and her physical disgust over an Eagles' song on the radio. While Coolwater contemplates Bernie Leadon's staggering banjo solo, the girl screams and smears him with her own feces. The driver, Coolwater's art dealer, loses her grip. “That goddamned country music,” moans the girl, dusting off outside, while the car lies overturned.

Cheyenne Madonna comprises a story cycle, and when executed well--think Sherwood Anderson's seminal Winesberg, Ohio--the form gets the breadth and sweep of a novel with the free-standing knockout blow of a short story. Chuculate's story cycle delivers on both counts. But no story is more fully realized, or packs a greater emotional wallop, than the immortalization of the Cheyenne Madonna in the final story: the piece de resistance to a damn near heroic collection

John Brandon. Citrus County. McSweeney’s, 2011.

Reviewed by Claire Harlan Orsi

In this appealingly disconcerting novel a teenage boy does a troubling thing. Citrus County, FL, is a place where “you couldn’t keep anything unless you had a good hiding spot for it,” and Toby finds a great hiding place, one in which he can sequester the little sister of his girlfriend Shelby. That’s right: Toby and Shelby continue to date while Toby keeps Shelby’s sister in an underground bunker. If this makes Toby sound pathological, that’s because he is. Well, in some ways he’s a regular eighth grade kid: he’s on the track team and he just “wants to continue being underestimated.” But of course he’s also a sociopath, one who seems bent on destroying everything good he has in his life.

Brandon’s scenes have a blunt, droll quality reminiscent of Joy Williams and perfect for portraying the easy brutality of adolescents. There’s a fantastic cast of characters, my favorite being Mr. Hibma, the disaffected geography teacher. Citrus County comes fully alive with all its woods and strip malls and beer can filled shopping carts (though as this Tampa Bay Times article points out, the county’s “tourism bureau isn't likely to be handing out copies of the book”). But by the end of the novel, I still didn’t understand why Toby did it. I’m probably not supposed to; this is probably the point. But the motivation problem still dogs me, keeping the novel from fully satisfying. Part of it, I think, is that Brandon’s tonal range firmly opposes any suggestion of sentimentality; his prose has a robust heartlessness that’s aesthetically delightful but comes at an emotional cost. Even if I understood why, I’m not sure I’d feel it.

Amy Leach. Things That Are: Essays. Milkweed Editions, 2012.

Reviewed by Jericho Parms

Amy Leach’s Things That Are not only marvels at ecology, from run-of-the-mill flora and fauna to miniscule earth dwellers and mammoth celestial forms, but dares a rekindling of attention to the natural world. Like a true essayist, Leach avoids unanimous life lessons as gracefully as she refuses to put a subject--the elusiveness of the panda, the madness of the pea tendril, the eternal characteristics of bamboo--to rest. Instead, she enters a courtship with ideas, flirting endlessly around the temperament and interconnectedness of living things. “There is a ladder out of any world,” Leach writes. “Each world is rimless.”

Things That Are offers a rung up from which to peer into these worlds. We see how fainting goats reveal the capriciousness of experience--“now one is supple, now changed to stone"--how twirling birds are like people who are lost “trying to forget yesterday,” and how yearly the birds migrate, navigating by remembered landmarks, which is why “the young with nothing to remember” often fly off course. Things That Are is a field guide to minute and magnified landscapes: the underbelly of a leaf, a river’s bend, the mind's imagination. In such spaces, Leach reveals her vantage point: an inventive crypsis that allows her to blend into a scene much like the lizard whose camouflage resembles tree bark or “Neptune keeping secret among the stars” until its discovery in 1846.

Leach’s prose, born of an insatiable curiosity, is a marriage of riddle and realism. While offering enchanted notions that dance cheek-to-cheek with make-believe, Leach’s precise language bears earnest truth: “The sun can never spend the night” after all, just as “Stars, like thoughts, are not inevitable.” Which is why, the next time your mind wanders, let it be to thoughts of honeybees or whirligigs, of water lilies or lotus flowers, and see if you don't emerge with a new sense of logic, a new measure of sanity.

It’s impossible to know how often we may fall in love with life’s wonders, but it’s safe to say again and again and again. Such is true of Things That Are. These essays lure attention as if they are laced with an additive: a whimsical truth serum and uncanny freshness--the stuff of wonder, the origins of delight.



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. ...Shane Moritz teaches writing at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. He is a dual Australian and US citizen working on a comic novella about a sad man who returns home to Portland, Oregon after a spell Down Under. ...Claire Harlan Orsi is the Blog Editor for Prairie Schooner. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, MAYDAY and The Believer. ...Jericho Parms received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her essays and reviews have recently appeared in Bellingham Review, South Loop Review and The Rumpus.


Submissions Open

Briefly Noted is 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!