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The Prairie Schooner Blog

Briefly Noted - March 11, 2015

Quick-to-Read Reviews

Vol. 4 Issue 1. March 11, 2015. Ed. Paul Clark.

Unaccompanied Minors by Alden Jones | Reviewed by David Weinstein

Beastings by Benjamin Myers | Reviewed by Armel Dagorn

Harm by Hillary Gravendyk | Reviewed by Maureen Alsop

Alden Jones. Unaccompanied Minors. New American Press, 2014.

Readers will be tempted to consume Unaccompanied Minors in one sitting, but they should resist. The impulse might be protective; this story collection from Alden Jones features children, as the title suggests, on the edge of danger. To start, a teenage girl and her lover Spike descend on a homeless shelter in North Carolina. In another story, a young man in Costa Rica tries to safeguard (and seduce) Martín, a teenage sex worker. We read quickly for the crisp language, the dark humor, but most of all for closure: the hope that these children can survive their circumstances, innocence intact.

But if we pause now and then, revel in the uncertainty, these stories recall the perils of our own teenage years. Even in the most uniquely harrowing situations—drowning, anorexia—Jones’s characters explore universal frontiers like death and sex, which initiate them into adulthood. Young men and women lust for new experiences, but a fear emerges that these will change them forever.

Self-discovery, it turns out, is the hazard these young heroes could never have foreseen. We grasp this truth because Jones immerses us so convincingly in their experiences. The language remains bare, always, and honest. She applies a palette of local color from New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee, Costa Rica. This comes as no surprise, for Jones is an accomplished travel writer. Take your time as you transport to these places, at once exotic and so familiar. Like Jones’s characters, you may find yourself growingDavid Weinstein

Benjamin Myers. Beastings. Bluemoose Books, 2014.

Benjamin Myers’ Beastings follows the pursuit of a young mute girl and the baby she abducted by a vengeful priest and the poacher who acts as his guide through the bleak mountains of Northern England. The writing, like the landscape the novel is set in, is bare. Most characters are unnamed. The priest is “the Priest”, the poacher “the Poacher”. The girl’s name pops up at some stage, but she remains “she”, or “the girl” all the same. Likewise, we can gather that the action takes place sometime in the late nineteenth century, but clues are few and far between, and much of the book could well be set a century earlier or later.

This careful vagueness gives the story an almost fairy tale-like atmosphere, if fairy tales were that graphic and relentless. The characters, those already mentioned and a couple more who appear for a few pages, are starkly drawn. Myers’ great achievement is how vividly he manages to show them and their past, their motivations, making us believe in the inevitability of the brutal events we witness (Beastings is anything but a feel-good book) and of the tough choices they make. The girl and the baby face starvation while fleeing from the obsessed, psychopathic Priest and there are many violent episodes, but the reader (this one, anyway) is compelled to read on.

Landscape is another of Beastings’ characters, and Myers has to be praised for casting it in such a prominent role, for doing for the Cumbrian mountains what is more often done by American writers and film-makers.

This is beautiful writing, and a very confident voice that will definitely make me look for more Myers on bookshop shelves.Armel Dagorn

Hillary Gravendyk. Harm. Omnidawn, 2012.

Hillary Gravendyk’s, Harm, is a life raft among poetry’s ebbing tides. In living, Hillary was conscious of dying. Thus lived fully aware that life itself was a form of harm: “Harm a kind of adhesive. Skin clusters around the opening, ridged and thick.  There are lighter and darker marks.  They disclose. Paper echo, gesture. Bleakness along the spine of narrative. Harm flat as a swept floor.” Identifying with the central point of loss, the relationship with the body, the limitations of physicality are to miss the embodiment of Gravendyk’s fundamental message: “You stay here” she wrote. She reminds us of the joy we are accountable for, the love we receive and reticulate like “breath, a portal.” Gravendyk asks “What, after all, did I show you?” It was a privilege to be by her side as a writer, friend, and collaborator. Her poetry continues to teach strength, as “warning left its signature…” and it's underside, helplessness “You saved every staple in a plastic cup/ each suture a deserted bridge / displaced from that softness.” Harm emphasizes the agency of the body to be acted upon, acted against—the body, as it's own instrument of love and terror. Harm guides gently toward a ubiquitous message, “walking like a kind of waiting.” Each reader moves alone against the eternal. The reader as witness. The reader as appetite, warning. “Someone threaded a loom of nails, spelled gentle ghost…” Harm surpasses the agency of trauma that death imparts. Harm opens not a sealed wound, but upon appreciation for Gravendyk’s irreproducible movements. Her brightness offers new avenues of clarity. Harm reflects art’s highest purpose, “a starker logic.” Harm is a gift as our relationship now moves “from one dream and into another.”–Maureen Alsop

David Weinstein is the Business and Circulation Manager at Ploughshares. His work has appeared in Slate, among other publications. Recently he received a fellowship from the Lambda Literary Foundation. Armel Dagorn is now back in his native France after living in Ireland for seven years. His writing has appeared in magazines such as Tin House online, NANO FictionBirkensnake, Paper Darts and Popshot. He has a little place at armeldagorn.wordpress.com. Maureen Alsop's poems have appeared or are pending in various publications including AGNI, Borrow Street, Cortland Review, MARGIE, Typo, North Dakota Quarterly, Columbia a Journal of Literature and Art, and Texas Review, among others. Her poetry was twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.