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Friday Reads 5.24.13

Chris: Creative Nonfiction, Issue #47, Winter 2013: Female Form

"We are reading this issue in the advanced creative nonfiction course I teach this term. The class is primarily women, and considering most journals don't feature much nonfiction and many of those essays are by men, I thought this might be an inspiring exercise. Sadly, I'm not feeling all that inspired. The essays I've read so far are very similar in style: heavy on metaphor, braided form or stream of consciousness, light on plot. They're not necessarily unsuccessful—I enjoyed Mary Quade's "The Collection"—but in general, clarity and momentum suffer in service to stylistic flourish. I also must point out the irony in the fact that the only piece by men in the issue, a roundtable on journalism, has a central message that can be boiled down to 'If you want to do it right, do it my way.' That said, I'm a fan of this publication and highly recommend a subscription." 

We didn’t set out to publish an all-women essay section, but as we were reading for this issue, we were drawn to a number of essays about, in some way, “the senses”—hearing, sight, etc. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say they’re about “perception.” And, it just so happened that these seriously beautiful essays about serious topics—entomology, ophthalmology, archaeology, molecular biology—were all written by women.

Plus: Elissa Bassist and Cheryl Strayed talk about how to write like a mother#^@%*&; exploring the possibilities of electronic literature; a roundtable discussion about the intersection of journalism and creative nonfiction; words to avoid in your prose; and more.

Megan: She Matters: A Life in Friendships by Susanna Sonnenberg

"Sonnenberg’s first memoir, Her Last Death, deals with her decision to cut off contact with her drug-addled, dangerously unreliable, persistently glamorous mother. Her second, She Matters, although ostensibly about the female friends who have defined different periods in Sonnenberg’s life, could also be described as a reckoning with the pernicious influence of her mother on all of her subsequent relationships. She devotes sections to broad swathes of her life thus far ('Young,' 'Aware,' and, finally, 'Awake'), and each chapter recounts the history of a particular friendship: with a camp bunkmate, with a college roommate who became her lover, with the women who came fortuitously into her life to help her through the bewildering first months (and years) of motherhood. Sonnenberg’s writing is often compelling, even electrifying, but what struck me most in She Matters was the seemingly inevitable ending of almost every friendship she describes. Some sloughing off of friends—even friends who were once the closest—naturally occurs in every woman’s life as she grows older, but Sonnenberg’s rate of attrition seems higher than usual, somehow."

The New York Times called Susanna Sonnenberg “immensely gifted,” and Vogue, “scrupulously unsentimental.” Entertainment Weekly described Sonnenberg’s Her Last Death as “a bracing memoir about growing up rich and glamorous with a savagely inappropriate mother.” Now, Sonnenberg, with her unflinching eye and uncanny wisdom, has written a compulsively readable book about female friendship.

Searing and superbly written, Sonnenberg’s She Matters: A Life in Friendships illuminates the friendships that have influenced, nourished, inspired, and haunted her—and sometimes torn her apart. Each has its own lessons that Sonnenberg seeks to understand. Her method is investigative and ruminative; her result, fearlessly observed portraits of friendships that will inspire all readers to consider the complexities of their own relationships. This electric book is testimony to the emotional significance of the intense bonds between women, whether shattered, shaky, or unbreakable.

Sacha: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

"Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins unfolds across two continents and five decades, tying together a tiny hotel on the Italian coast, a one-time bit actress, a post-punk front man on the skids, and a doomed movie about the Donner Party.  Against this backdrop of entertainment and celebrity, Walter looks at regret, the chance not taken, and the consequences that our actions—or inaction—have, even decades down the road.

The story is beautifully crafted and told, with some finely observed writing (and a funny, moving appearance by Sir Richard Burton), but the intricacies of the plot, which fit together seamlessly like pieces of a puzzle, end up removing some of the characters’ humanity as they slot into position. Still, a great read that jumps through time and media—chapters of memoirs, movie pitches, and play scripts appear among the pages—that takes the long view of life and happiness."

The acclaimed, award-winning author of the national bestseller The Financial Lives of the Poets returns with his funniest, most romantic, and most purely enjoyable novel yet. Hailed by critics and loved by readers of literary and historical fiction, Beautiful Ruins is the story of an almost-love affair that begins on the Italian coast in 1962...and is rekindled in Hollywood fifty years later. 

Jennifer: “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut

“It has been maybe decades since I’ve read ‘Harrison Bergeron’ and definitely Slaughterhouse Five, though one tends not to forget Vonnegut. Reading the story now is a different experience, and I decided to revisit it because of a project I’m working on about disability and special needs. A few things immediately crossed my mind. The movie Idiocracy, made in the meantime, with its dumbed-down, numbed-out, TV-watching populace presents some obvious parallels. As does the everyone’s-a-winner approach employed by some elementary schools, which reward everyone equally, lest anyone feel left out. It is interesting, as many critics note, that the points of inequality (physical, intellectual) considered important to the society in the story are not the ones (racial, gender, income, sexual) that were shaking the country in 1961, and to varying extents still plaguing us now. And it’s tempting to conclude that, fifty-two years after the story’s publication, as Americans we tend to ignore the larger inequities, and to continue to prize a uniform, small-minded, and mostly unattainable ideal of beauty and physical form.” 

It is the year 2081. Because of Amendments 211, 212, and 213 to the Constitution, every American is fully equal, meaning that no one is stupider, uglier, weaker, or slower than anyone else. The Handicapper General and a team of agents ensure that the laws of equality are enforced. One April, fourteen-year-old Harrison Bergeron is taken away from his parents, George and Hazel, by the government.


Submission Sunday 5.19.13

Best New Poets
Anthology Call for Submissions (Deadline May 20)

Best New Poets is an annual anthology of 50 poems from emerging writers. Each year, a guest editor selects 50 poems from nominations made by literary magazines and writing programs, as well as an Open Internet Competition.

If you don't receive a program or magazine nomination, there's also the Open Internet Competition, which is open to all writers who have not published a book-length collection of poetry. Unlike the free magazine and program nominations, the Open Competition requires a reading fee of $4.00. 

Vermont Studio Center Fellowships for Artists and Writers (Deadline June 15)

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Submission Sunday 5.12.13

PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Program (Deadline August 12)

Emerging Voices is a literary fellowship program that aims to provide new writers, who lack access, with the tools they will need to launch a professional writing career. During the eight month fellowship, each Emerging Voices fellow participates in a professional mentorship, hosted Q & A evenings with prominent local authors, a series of master classes focused on genre, a voice class, a volunteer project, and several public readings. The fellowship includes a $1,000 stipend.

Participants need not be published, but the program is directed toward poets and writers of fiction and creative nonfiction with clear ideas of what they hope to accomplish through their writing.

Whidbey Writers Workshop Emerging Writers Getaway Contest
(Deadline May 24)

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Friday Reads 5.10.13

Chris: Fight Song by Joshua Mohr

"From what I've read, Fight Song is Joshua Mohr's first substance-free book, having made his name with a trilogy of the San Francisco underbelly that includes Some Things that Meant the World to MeTermite Parade, and Damascus. This novel moves into more suburban territory with the tale of Bob Coffen, video game designer and frustrated husband. When the story begins, Bob has been given a plaque in the form of a clock that doesn't tell time — a plock — to commemorate his many years at the same job. Already depressed by this realization of rutdom, he is then alienated from his wife (who is going for the world water-treading record) and bullied by his totally psycho neighbor. Bob wanders around aimlessly purposeful, meeting a host of peculiar townsfolk, as he tries to change his life into something he can be proud of. Every one of Fight Song's characters is distinctly drawn and Mohr doesn't take predictable routes in telling Bob's eccentric tale of redemption."

When his bicycle is intentionally run off the road by a neighbor's SUV, something snaps in Bob Coffin [sic]. Modern suburban life has been getting him down and this is the last straw. To avoid following in his own father’s missteps, Bob is suddenly desperate to reconnect with his wife and his distant, distracted children. And he's looking for any guidance he can get.

Bob Coffin soon learns that the wisest words come from the most unexpected places, from characters that are always more than what they appear to be: a magician/marriage counselor, a fast-food drive-thru attendant/phone-sex operator, and a janitor/guitarist of a French KISS cover band. Can these disparate voices inspire Bob to fight for his family? To fight for his place in the world? A call-to-arms for those who have ever felt beaten down by life, Fight Song is a quest for happiness in a world in which we are increasingly losing control. It is the exciting new novel by one of the most surprising and original writers of his generation.

Megan: The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

"It’s not that I didn’t enjoy reading Oates’s latest, a bizarre mash-up of historical novel and supernatural Gothic horror set in early twentieth-century Princeton, but The Accursed is a baffling book. In a series of unfortunate events in 1905 and 1906, privileged Princetonians have their extremely comfortable lives turned upside down by what seems to be a demonic curse aimed at eradicating their sense of well-being and exceptionalism. The curse may simply be the result of a lingering sense of (well-deserved) guilt over the sources of their wealth, like slavery and the exploitation of factory workers—or there may actually be a demonic curse (and alternate worlds, and vampires). Historical figures such as Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London are exposed as deeply flawed men, linked by their refusal to see those whom they would prefer not to see as fully human: suffragettes; Socialists; domestic workers descended from the slaves brought to Princeton by nineteenth-century college students; their own spouses. Like all good historical novels, The Accursed did make me want to find out more about its subjects and settings, even as it left me scratching my head and wondering what Oates might have been smoking (or reading).

A major historical novel from "one of the great artistic forces of our time" (The Nation)—an eerie, unforgettable story of possession, power, and loss in early-twentieth-century Princeton, a cultural crossroads of the powerful and the damned. Princeton, New Jersey, at the turn of the twentieth century: a tranquil place to raise a family, a genteel town for genteel souls. But something dark and dangerous lurks at the edges of the town, corrupting and infecting its residents. Vampires and ghosts haunt the dreams of the innocent. A powerful curse besets the elite families of Princeton; their daughters begin disappearing. A young bride on the verge of the altar is seduced and abducted by a dangerously compelling man–a shape-shifting, vaguely European prince who might just be the devil, and who spreads his curse upon a richly deserving community of white Anglo-Saxon privilege. And in the Pine Barrens that border the town, a lush and terrifying underworld opens up.

When the bride's brother sets out against all odds to find her, his path will cross those of Princeton's most formidable people, from Grover Cleveland, fresh out of his second term in the White House and retired to town for a quieter life, to soon-to-be commander in chief Woodrow Wilson, president of the university and a complex individual obsessed to the point of madness with his need to retain power; from the young Socialist idealist Upton Sinclair to his charismatic comrade Jack London, and the most famous writer of the era, Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain–all plagued by "accursed" visions. An utterly fresh work from Oates, The Accursed marks new territory for the masterful writer. Narrated with her unmistakable psychological insight, it combines beautifully transporting historical detail with chilling supernatural elements to stunning effect.

Sacha: Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll by Joe Oestreich

"This story of life on the bottom rungs of the Ohio alt-rock scene chronicles twenty-five years of life in the no-hit band Watershed. They rode the dragon from Detroit beer barns to Epic Records and all the way back again, but unlike everyone else, they kept at it once the ride was over—their eighth album came out last year. The writing is sure (Oestreich ended up getting an MFA, and now teaches creative writing) and the tale of musical obsession is one that any fan can relate to."

Everyone knows the price of fame. Hitless Wonder measures the price of obscurity. What happens when you chase a dream into middle age and, in doing so, risk losing the people you love? This book recounts the two-week tour that forces Joe Oestreich—singer, songwriter, and bassist of the band Watershed—to decide if he and his longtime bandmates still have a future together. In the mid-‘90s, Watershed’s large Midwest following led to a six-figure deal with Epic Records. But the band never had a hit, and the label dropped them. Seventeen years later, long after their more famous peers have called it quits, Watershed keeps climbing into the Econoline and touring mop bucket bars.

But Joe can’t help but wonder: Are he and his bandmates—approaching forty with wives and kids and mortgages—admirable or pathetic? Successes or failures? The tour tests the bonds of Joe’s friendships and the strength of his marriage, as he’s torn between the lure of the road and the call to finally settle down. An accomplished journalist and creative writing instructor, Oestreich tells his story with humor, heart, and unflinching honesty. Readers—from Baby Boomers to Gen X-ers—will be deeply moved by his voice, while appreciating his quixotic struggle to live out a dream.

Jennifer: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss 

“Everybody and his brother has read this book. In fact, I only read it because my brother told me he thought it was good. As with so many other books, I wonder how I would have found it on the page, without the shading that the actors reading it to me in the car gave it. The reader for Leopold Gursky’s character stole the show, as his character stole the book; from his opening lines, this is the case: When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT. I could have spent a lot more time with that voice: his humanity, humor, and sarcasm, as well as his integrity and longing, not to mention his upstairs neighbor. If I had read the book instead of listened to it, I would have seen the pictures of Krauss’s relatives inside the front cover, and felt a greater affinity for her project. But something about the neatness in the last section, A&L, in which two of the voices—Leopold Gursky’s and Alma’s, the young girl, which had been distinct throughout—come together, felt as trying as had some portions of the book-within-a-book on which the mystery is predicated, and I wished she had gotten a bit closer to what she wanted to say, without the gimmicks.”

Leo Gursky taps his radiator each evening to let his upstairs neighbor know he’s still alive. But it wasn’t always like this: in the Polish village of his youth, he fell in love and wrote a book. . . . Sixty years later and half a world away, fourteen-year-old Alma, who was named after a character in that book, undertakes an adventure to find her namesake and save her family. With virtuosic skill and soaring imaginative power, Nicole Krauss gradually draws these stories together toward a climax of “extraordinary depth and beauty” (Newsday).


Megan Stephan on Gatsby

At Avidly today, our consultant Megan Stephan weighs in on the Gatsby hoopla and how her students experience Fitzgerald's novel.

"Infidelity and betrayal; carelessness and amorality; anxiety about whether we will be found wanting in some crucial way and fear of being found out—these states of being are familiar both to me and to them. As an adult, I now know that they are also relatively finite, or at least survivable, but that makes them no less powerful."


Submission Sunday 5.5.13

Southern Indiana Review Thomas A. Wihelmus Editors’ Award (June 1 – $1500)

The Southern Indiana Review presents a cross-section of emerging and established artists and writers whose work is both regional and national in scope and degree of recognition. With the support of the Indiana Arts Commission and National Endowment for the Arts, SIR is published in October and May by the University of Southern Indiana and sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts. The editors invite submissions of poetry, fiction, interviews, art work, photography, critical essays, and reviews between September 1st and April 30th.

Southern Indiana Review editors will award a prize of $1500 and publication for a work of creative nonfiction. All entries are considered for publication. Submit an essay of up to thirty-five pages with a $20 entry fee ($5 for each additional entry) by June 1, 2013. 

Writer’s Digest 
Annual Writing Competition
 (Deadline June 3 – $3000 + trip to NYC)

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Submission Sunday 4.28.12

Notting Hill Editions William Hazlitt Essay Prize (Deadline August 1 – £15,000)

Notting Hill Editions is delighted to launch an annual literary prize for the best essay in the English language, of between 2,000 and 8,000 words, published or unpublished, on any subject. The award is named in honour of William Hazlitt (1778-1830), the great master of the miscellaneous essay. Chair of judges author and journalist Harry Mount says ‘The British have always underplayed the importance of the essay, and yet we're naturally very good at them. The mixture of wit, brevity and original thought suits us down to the ground. Such a generous prize is bound to produce a fresh crop of first-rate essays from established and new writers.’

The prize will be judged on the originality of the ideas, the quality of the prose and the ability to communicate to a wide audience. All entries for the competition must be between 2,000 and 8,000 words. Award value £15,000. Five runners-up will each receive £1000.

Prada Journal Short Story Contest (Deadline June 18 – 5,000)


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Friday Reads 4.26.13

Chris: Songs in the Key of Los Angeles: Words and Music Arranged by Josh Kun

"In this beautiful art book, Josh Kun has collected a treasure trove of Los Angeles ephemera. The focus of the collection is not the sheet music itself but the covers with which the music was marketed. The images used to sell the music and, with it, Los Angeles — we're looking at songs from the 1860s to the 1950s when the city was growing faster than a speeding bullet — are chock full of palm trees, canyons, beaches, citrus, missions, cacti, wholesome girls, and cowboys. The accompanying text provides astute and engaging commentary on how these songs served as boosterism, wish fulfillment, and reports from the field."

Culled from the Southern California Sheet Music Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library, this unprecedented anthology tells the story of Los Angeles through its songs. Featuring the elaborately designed covers of more than one hundred pieces of vintage sheet music, Songs in the Key of Los Angeles spans 1859 to 1959, offering a rare musical window into Southern California history—from mythic Missions to infinite oranges, from rumbling railroads to romantic Ramona . . . and there’s Hollywood history, too, harmoniously noted by its music and film industries. Inside you’ll find California lullabies and Los Angeles waltzes, sunshine rags and sunset serenades, the emergence of West Coast jazz and the legacy of Mexican folk traditions, all accompanied by an essay from the collection’s curator and native Angeleno Josh Kun. Additional arrangements from musicians Van Dyke Parks and Stew, plus a chorus of critics and historians, come together to bring these extraordinary city songs back to life, ready for a new generation of city dwellers.

Megan: Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School by Kevin Smokler

"Because I am working on a project which is at least in part about the act and significance of rereading, I've been seeking out books that deal with how and why we revisit books we've read before. An awful lot of books on this subject seem to have been published in the last ten years or so; many people seem to be enquiring into what constitutes a literary classic and how our relationship to such classics shifts over time. Kevin Smokler's Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School is extremely breezy in style, in keeping with his stated mission: to show readers how the 'greatness' of books usually assigned in high school 'can be useful to the life you are living now.' Among other things, he makes a surprisingly good case for rereading Candide, which 'has a great deal to teach us about being young and stupid, about not questioning what we've been taught, and about believing we bear no responsibility for our destiny.'"

What do the great books of your youth have to say about your life now? Remember reading Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby in high school? How about Slaughterhouse-Five and Pride and Prejudice? Would you read them again now that no one's grading you, just for your own enjoyment? This book helps you decide to do just that. This author will guide you through fifty books commonly assigned in high school English class and show you why you'd probably enjoy rereading the same books as an adult. Smokler's essays on the classics—witty, down-to-earth, appreciative, and insightful—are divided into ten sections, each covering an archetypical stage of life—from youth and first love to family, loss, and the future. The author not only reminds you about the essential features of each great book but gives you a practical, real-world reason why revisiting it in adulthood is not only enjoyable but useful. Can The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn help you cope with aging? What does To Kill a Mockingbird have to say about being a parent? How about Fahrenheit 451 on not getting stuck in a crappy job? Practical Classics gives you an incentive to reread and a reason why.

Sacha: Punk Rock Dad by Jim Lundberg 

"As the singer of South Bay punk stalwarts Pennywise, Jim Lundberg’s got a lot more street cred than, say, Alternadad’s Neal Pollack.  (Lundberg also has three kids compared to Pollack’s one—step it up!)  And while his observations aren’t all particularly revelatory—apparently babies poop a lot, and apparently that smells bad—there are some moments that illuminate his split perspective, like being outed by the kindergarten teacher on parents’ night. (“Why yes, I do have a song called ‘Fuck Authority’ on KROQ.”)  Years ago I struggled with the change in identity that becoming a parent would mean, and this book is a good reminder that some people out there have a whole lot more to deal with on that particular issue."

Jim Lindberg is a Punk Rock Dad. When he drives his kids to school in the morning, they listen to the Ramones, the Clash, or the Descendents and that's it. He goes to all the soccer games, dance rehearsals, and piano recitals, but when he feels the need, he goes into the slam pit at punk shows and comes home bruised and beaten—somehow feeling strangely better. While the other dads dye their hair brown to cover the gray, Jim occasionally dyes his blue or green. He pays his taxes, serves jury duty, votes in all major elections, and reserves the right to believe that there's a vast Right Wing Conspiracy—and that the head of the P.T.A. is possibly in on it. He is a Punk Rock Dad.

Jennifer: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

"If you, unlike everyone else I know, have not yet read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you should. I listened to it in the car but it is an engaging and unforgettable read anywhere. Interestingly, it is read for audiobook by Cassandra Campbell, who I reencountered later listening to Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love, which was rather jarring, as Campbell’s voice seems to me now of a piece with Skloot’s narrator, and therefore a bad fit for Krauss’s young intrepid girl (in a book whose only real selling feature is the character of Leopold Gursky, but that’s another story). A recent article by Skloot in The New York Times reveals that the saga of the Lacks family continues."

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. 

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells. 


Friday Reads 4.19.13

Chris: Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel

"This novel by Fiona Maazel (my final fiction panelist for this weekend's Festival of Books) features a loneliness cult, a CIA mistress of disguise, an underground city in Cincinnati, speed dating, gambling addiction, Star Wars cosplay, Kim Jong-il, and much more... The prose starts out at a high semantic pitch (have your dictionary handy) and doesn't falter as the narrative skips from POV to POV in a whirlwind adventure tale with lost love at its core. If you've been interested in any of these books from the past few weeks, come by USC (Mudd 123) at 3:30 on Saturday for the 'Fiction: With a Sideways Glance' panel."

Thurlow Dan is the founder of the Helix, a cult that promises to cure loneliness in the twenty-first century. With its communes and speed-dating, mixers and confession sessions, the Helix has become a national phenomenon—and attracted the attention of governments worldwide. But Thurlow, camped out in his Cincinnati headquarters, is lonely—for his ex-wife, Esme, and their daughter, whom he hasn't seen in ten years. Esme, for her part, is a covert agent who has spent her life spying on Thurlow, mostly to protect him from the law. Now, with her superiors demanding results, she recruits four misfits to botch a reconnaissance mission in Cincinnati. But when Thurlow takes them hostage, he ignites a siege of the Helix House that will change all their lives forever.

With fiery, exuberant prose, Fiona Maazel takes us on a wild ride through North Korea's guarded interior and a city of vice beneath Cincinnati, a ride that twists and turns as it delves into an unsettled, off-kilter America. Woke Up Lonely is an original and deeply funny novel that explores our very human impulse to seek and repel intimacy with the people who matter to us most.

Megan: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

"I do a lot of rereading of books on high school and college reading lists for my work as a teacher; this week, I'm actually rereading something I haven't picked up since eighth grade (or was it ninth?) and enjoying the hell out of it, somewhat to my surprise. The book group I moderate chose to read John Steinbeck's East of Eden for this month's meeting. I really admire and respect them for wanting to read all kinds of books, rather than sticking with safe and standard book group fare, so I prepared to plunge back into Steinbeck's novel with some trepidation. I remembered the book as a family saga, a retelling of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, but I did not remember (and probably wouldn't have registered as a thirteen-year-old) how deep, dark, plain, and satisfying Steinbeck's style is. In the character of Cathy, he draws one of literary history's most compelling monsters, while making us question what the true nature of a human monster is. Such small, beautiful things as his description of a dress shop in early twentieth-century Salinas as 'a sanctuary where women could be themselves--smelly, wanton, mystic, conceited, truthful, and interested' make me glad that I'm only halfway through this rereading."

The masterpiece of Steinbeck's later years, East of Eden is the powerful and vastly ambitious novel that is both family saga and a modern retelling of the book of Genesis.

Sacha: Middle Men by Jim Gavin

"I read early drafts of some of these stories in a writing group, and here they've been polished to a high sheen. Hilarious and poignant without sentiment, these stories of men destined to serve in the ranks of mediocrity have gotten a lot of attention, and rightly so.  Some of the funniest dialogue I've read in years, set in a Southern California that defies stereotypes."

In Middle Men, Stegner Fellow and New Yorker contributor Jim Gavin delivers a hilarious and panoramic vision of California, portraying a group of men, from young dreamers to old vets, as they make valiant forays into middle-class respectability. In “Play the Man,” a high-school basketball player aspires to a college scholarship, in “Elephant Doors,” a production assistant on a game show moonlights as a stand-up comedian, and in the collection’s last story, the immensely moving “Costello,” a middle-aged plumbing supplies salesman comes to terms with the death of his wife. The men in Gavin’s stories all find themselves stuck somewhere in the middle, caught half way between their dreams and the often crushing reality of their lives. A work of profound humanity that pairs moments of high comedy with searing truths about life’s missed opportunities, Middle Men brings to life a series of unforgettable characters learning what it means to love and work and be in the world as a man, and it offers our first look at a gifted writer who has just begun teaching us the tools of his trade.

Jennifer: “Pet Milk” by Stuart Dybek (from the short story collection The Coast of Chicago)

“‘She had lovely knees.’ Every so often this phrase comes to mind, unbidden, and it brings with it the great gulp of desire, youth, and longing contained in this story of only 1,795 words. Not to mention pleasure, summer, the scratch of kitchen radio, Eastern cities, oysters washed by champagne, and the carnal potential of a subway car—if you’ve read Nicholson Baker on the L train to Brooklyn, then you’ll know what I mean by that last bit. ‘Pet Milk’ was first read to me by a man, now my husband, with whom I’d fallen in love during graduate school, a fellow student who was at the time still in ways a boy. He read it aloud in a taxi to the hospital to have the ACL replaced in one of his knees. It was his favorite story. At the time, we thought our longish affair was about to end, mirroring the brinkmanship in the story, and it retains that feeling for me.” 

The stolid landscape of Chicago suddenly turns dreamlike and otherworldly in Stuart Dybek’s classic story collection. A child’s collection of bottle caps becomes the tombstones of a graveyard. A lowly rightfielder’s inexplicable death turns him into a martyr to baseball. Strains of Chopin floating down the tenement airshaft are transformed into a mysterious anthem of loss. Combining homely detail and heartbreakingly familiar voices with grand leaps of imagination, The Coast of Chicago is a masterpiece from one of America’s most highly regarded writers.


Smart Career Moves for Grad Students

If you are at work on a dissertation, chances are you’ll be on the job market for your discipline at some point in the near future. How can you prepare now to make the job application process as easy as possible?

  • Update your CV. Include degrees, teaching experience, administrative and/or research experience, conferences attended, publications (scholarly and otherwise), scholarships and fellowships, committee work, certifications, and anything else relevant to your discipline. If any sections look a little light, work on adding some more items while you’re still in school. Start investigating ways to get your CV online.
  • Publish. Follow calls for papers and submit anything you have that’s relevant. UPenn has an excellent resource for CFPs. It takes an average of 2-4 years for an edited collection to come out, so the sooner you submit, the better. Don’t think your work isn’t ready. Leave it up to the editors of the journal or collection to decide that. 
  • Prepare the people you will ask for recommendations. It’s probably best to wait until a few months before you start applying for jobs to ask for the recommendations, so they are as fresh as possible, but you can start grooming the recommenders now. Let them know you’ll be asking. Start to compile a handy list of highlights in your relationship for them to consult when writing the letter.
  • Keep everything related to your teaching experience. You will need to scan and upload it to make it available to hiring committees.
  • Set up an account at Interfolio or a similar dossier service. Start uploading documents, such as a revised and polished writing sample (or a few for different types of jobs), your CV, certifications, student evaluations, peer observations, transcripts, teaching philosophy, and sample syllabi. 
  • Find peers and mentors who can give you advice on your documents. The more feedback you can get, the better. People who have served on hiring committees are especially insightful.
  • Look into alternative careers. Hopefully, the current economic conditions will continue to improve, but if not, knowing about alternatives to the traditional tenure-track position will only empower you.

Posted by Chris Daley


Submission Sunday 4.14.12

Engine Books Novel Prize (Deadline April 30 – $1000)

Engine Books is a boutique fiction press publishing novels, short story collections, collected novellas, and related volumes. We seek to publish four titles each year, ensuring full attention to the editing, production, and promotion of each title.

Enter the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize! Winners will receive a $1,000 advance and publication by Engine Books in 2014. The 2013 Novel Prize will be judged by Robin Black, whose story collection If I loved you, I would tell you this was a big hit from Random House in 2010 and was a finalist for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize. Her stories present the whole world compacted into the space of a (long) story, novels in slightly smaller packages. She's been a friend to and supporter of EngineBooks before the press officially existed, and we're so grateful she's agreed to judge the contest.

The Rumpus Readers Report: Misery Loves Company (Deadline April 16)

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Friday Reads 4.12.13

Chris: Fobbit by David Abrams

"Another Festival of Books panelist. Even though I spent some time writing about war literature in grad school, I think this novel is my first Iraq War narrative. Abrams, who was there, nails the details that make this war distinct—the public affairs office in Hussein's former palace, the omnipresent IEDs—but also the details that connect this conflict with those that came before—the absurd, labyrinthine bureaucracy, the fragility of the body in the face of continually advancing weapons technology. Yet while the book is necessarily bleak and horrifying in parts, it is essentially a comic novel with entertaining and vivid characters. The composition of press releases especially rings true."

Fobbit \’fä-bit\, noun. Definition: A U.S. soldier stationed at a Forward Operating Base who avoids combat by remaining at the base, esp. during Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2011). Pejorative.

In the satirical tradition of Catch-22 and M*A*S*H, Fobbit takes us into the chaotic world of Baghdad’s Forward Operating Base Triumph. The Forward Operating base, or FOB, is like the back-office of the battlefield—where people eat and sleep, and where a lot of soldiers have what looks suspiciously like an office job. Male and female soldiers are trying to find an empty Porta Potty in which to get acquainted, grunts are playing Xbox and watching NASCAR between missions, and a lot of the senior staff are more concerned about getting to the chow hall in time for the Friday night all-you-can-eat seafood special than worrying about little things like military strategy. Darkly humorous and based on the author's own experiences in Iraq, Fobbit is a fantastic debut that shows us a behind-the-scenes portrait of the real Iraq war.

Megan: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

"In this novel, an obese woman’s suburban Jewish family implodes, at least in part because those around her can’t stand to watch her killing herself with food. So much energy and ink are currently lavished on the politics and science of food and overeating, and The Middlesteins offers the rare opportunity to see a protagonist, Edie Middlestein, who is both dangerously overweight and still compelling to the opposite sex and to her multitude of friends. Attenberg also does a disturbingly good job of balancing her descriptions of Edie’s eating right on the edge between sympathetic desire and distaste, so that we cannot easily pathologize Edie’s compulsions. We never quite find out what demon drives Edie to overeat, but I found myself to be happier with that ambiguity than I would have been with an Oprah-esque resolution."

For more than thirty years, Edie and Richard Middlestein shared a solid family life together in the suburbs of Chicago. But now things are splintering apart, for one reason, it seems: Edie's enormous girth. She's obsessed with food--thinking about it, eating it--and if she doesn't stop, she won't have much longer to live. When Richard abandons his wife, it is up to the next generation to take control. Robin, their schoolteacher daughter, is determined that her father pay for leaving Edie. Benny, an easy-going, pot-smoking family man, just wants to smooth things over. And Rachelle—a whippet thin perfectionist—is intent on saving her mother-in-law's life, but this task proves even bigger than planning her twin children's spectacular b'nai mitzvah party. Through it all, they wonder: do Edie's devastating choices rest on her shoulders alone, or are others at fault, too? With pitch-perfect prose, huge compassion, and sly humor, Jami Attenberg has given us an epic story of marriage, family, and obsession. The Middlesteins explores the hopes and heartbreaks of new and old love, the yearnings of Midwestern America, and our devastating, fascinating preoccupation with food.

Sacha: How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell

"I've been working  at my daughter's book fair all week, seeing lots of strange new books about underwear superheroes and ninjas that are also legos—it's all a bit unclear—but came across this old favorite."

Because of a bet, Billy is in the uncomfortable position of having to eat fifteen worms in fifteen days. The worms are supplied by his opponent, whose motto is "The bigger and juicier, the better!" At first Billy's problem is whether or not he can swallow the worm placed before him, even with a choice of condiments from peanut butter to horseradish. But later it looks as if Billy will win, and the challenge becomes getting to the worm to eat it. Billy's family, after checking with the doctor, takes everything in stride. They even help Billy through his gastronomic ordeal, which twists and turns with each new day, leaving the outcome of the bet continually in doubt.

Jennifer: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (read by Jeremy Irons) 

“The book needs absolutely no introduction, except to say that if you have the occasion to listen to Jeremy Irons read it, please do. If Nabokov stole the use of ‘nymphet’ from all future writers, Irons shuttles it into the very center of your left temporal lobe.”

Awe and exhiliration—along with heartbreak and mordant wit—abound in Lolita, Nabokov's most famous and controversial novel, which tells the story of the aging Humbert Humbert's obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze. Lolita is also the story of a hypercivilized European colliding with the cheerful barbarism of postwar America. Most of all, it is a meditation on love — love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation.


Being Yourself in the College Personal Statement


There’s a running gag in the recent Tina Fey movie Admission that should ring true for anyone—student, parent, teacher, counselor—who has found herself anywhere near the often baffling world of college applications over the last decade or so. Fey plays a Princeton University admissions officer. At each of her presentations to eager would-be Tigers, she teasingly says, “You’re all here because you want to know the secret formula to getting in.” Then she invites her audience to take out their pens and write down the following: just be yourself. I don’t think the kids groan audibly, but their frustration is palpable. To a kid, they are all thinking, “Come on, lady. What the *&% does that actually mean?” It seems like such an easy thing for an adult (especially one who has already graduated from college and put the pain of applications behind her forever) to say.

But Fey’s character actually has it right, especially when it comes to the sometimes dreaded personal statement section of college applications. I know that students look at the prompts on the Common Application or the University of California application and freeze. They are all too aware that they have to come up with distinctive, well-written answers to broad questions like “Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you” or “Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.” And then well-meaning adults have the gall to tell them to just be themselves.

When I work with students on their personal statements, however, that advice is still the best that I can offer. Why? Because the best personal statements are stories that only the student herself could tell. Many of the formative events in our lives before we turn eighteen are ones that we share with countless others: academic challenges, athletic successes (or failures), community service epiphanies, divorce, wrangling with siblings, moving from one place to another. Some are not so common. Whether the experience that you want to write about seems unique to you or shared with many others, what matters in writing about it is that you focus not on the event itself, but on how it shaped you. Who were you before this happened? Who are you now? Admissions readers are looking for students who have the capacity for self-reflection—who know themselves well enough to analyze how they were affected by the events in their lives, whatever those events may have been. You don’t have to be a superhero writing about how you leapt tall buildings in a single bound (although that would be a pretty cool topic for a personal statement). You do, however, need to know enough about yourself to communicate who that person is in words. In order to do that, you really should try simply to be yourself.

Watch this space for more posts about writing personal statements.


Posted by Megan Stephan


Submission Sunday 4.7.13

Paper Darts Short Fiction Award (Deadline May 15 — $800)

Founded in August of 2009, Paper Darts has become much more than the original 24 page zine we printed, assembled, and bound with a Singer sewing machine in our living rooms. Two years after Co-founders Jamie Millard, Regan Smith, and Meghan Murphy first launched the Paper Darts website the organization has expanded to include a publishing press, a creative agency for freelance hire, and three additional talented staff members.

The original PD publication, 
Paper Darts Magazine is our fuzzy little lovechild of literature and art. If babies were puppies and puppies were birthed by Paper Darts, this magazine would be like the awesomest, shiniest, most bitey (in a good way) puppy you ever tried to lure into a windowless white van. 

$800 for 800 words. Plus, the winning story will appear fully illustrated, all beautified and sexy on its very own custom website. Judge: Elliott Holt.

Rose Metal Press Call for Submissions (Deadline May 1)

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Friday Reads 4.5.13

Chris: The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets by Diana Wagman

"This is my second Festival of Books panelist. I'm excited to read a book that features kidnapping and game shows. The first paragraph reads in part: 'Los Angeles in November was the same as Los Angeles in April or August, was the same as Los Angeles whenever Winnie Parker happened to look out her window. The palm trees were always green. The temperature was always moderate. The cars were always driving by.' I often argue against characterizations of Los Angeles as monotonous, so it's a testament to the prose that I dig this. Postscript: Now that I've finished the book, I want to add what a fun thriller it is."

Winnie Parker, mother to an angst-ridden teenage daughter and ex-wife to a successful game show host who left her for a twenty-something contestant, begins a normal day in her hum-drum existence by dropping her car off at the repair shop. After accepting what she believes is a ride to pick up her rental car, Winnie realizes too late that she's been kidnapped. What follows is a riveting psychological game of cat and mouse set in the kidnapper's tropically heated house—kept that way for Cookie, a menacing seven-foot long Iguana headquartered in the kitchen. 

An engrossing, darkly humorous, edge-of-your-seat story, The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets explores the dynamic between kidnapper and kidnapped, bizarre reptile lore, and the absurdity of the celebrity lifestyle.

Megan: The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner

"Lerner is a poet, a former editor for top publishing houses in New York City, and a literary agent. She knows every dark corner of the writer's soul. In this helpful, funny, and reassuring book, she sets out not to tell writers how to write, but to keep them writing (or get them writing again) and to offer advice on the publishing process. I'm still (slightly shamefacedly) trying to find my own answer to the salient question she poses in her introduction: 'Is your neurotic behavior part of your creative process or just...neurotic behavior?'"

Quickly established as an essential and enduring companion for aspiring writers when it was first published, Betsy Lerner's sharp, funny, and insightful guide has been meticulously updated and revised to address the dramatic changes that have reshaped the publishing industry in the decade since. From blank page to first glowing (or gutting) review, Betsy Lerner is a knowing and sympathetic coach who helps writers discover how they can be more productive in the creative process and how they can better their odds of not only getting published, but getting published well. This is an essential trove of advice for writers and an indispensable user's manual to both the inner life of the writer and the increasingly anxious place where art and commerce meet: the boardrooms and cubicles of the publishing house. 

Sacha: My Vision by Muammar Gaddafi with Edmond Jouve

"This odd book combines Jouve’s fawning conversations with Gaddafi and The Green Book, the philosophical basis underpinning the dictator’s 42-year invention: the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. I lived in Libya as a kid, but never gave much thought to the convoluted thinking behind the slogans on every building and stamp and dinar bill.  Finally reading the man’s own words, all I can say is: We’re through the looking glass here, people." 

In 2004, the international embargo and sanctions that had been imposed on Libya for more than a decade were lifted by the UN Security Council when Colonel Muammar Gadaffi announced that Libya would give up its nuclear weapons. Further, Gadaffi agreed to compensate the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing and the attack on the TWA flight that occurred in the late 1980s. This remarkable gesture showed Gaddafi’s commitment to seeing Libya rejoin the international community. In the sprit of reconciliation, Prime Minister Tony Blair flew to Tripoli, declaring that Libya was now an ally in the fight against global terrorism. How is this reversal explained? Born from conversations between Gaddafi and political expert Edmond Jouve, this book retraces the Libyan leader's political and ideological journey.

Jennifer: The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp

"This is a little bit of a cheat, as I haven't opened the book since it arrived several weeks ago. It's sitting in a stack of things on my dining room table, much the way Emily's blog, Our Little Seal, sat open in my browser for months, like a Post-It on the screen: PAY ATTENTION. I know enough of what the book contains because I read the blog and various of her pieces on Salon and The Rumpus and especially the recent excerpt on The Huffington Post relaying how her son Ronan was diagnosed, at nine months, with Tay-Sachs, a short little scene now more or less permanently in the lexicon. My reluctance is obviously not an original problem; I've noticed a few reviews of the book begin in such a way. Everyone I know is familiar with Emily's story, and I think it speaks to the power of her voice and subject that we are all afraid to read and then to have to leave the book behind. She's said that she is glad to have written it because revisiting the pages will be like reliving her life with Ronan. And I guess that's all I need to say about that."

The Still Point of the Turning World is the story of a mother’s journey through grief and beyond it.  Rapp’s response to her son’s diagnosis was a belief that she needed to “make my world big”—to make sense of her family’s situation through art, literature, philosophy, theology and myth.  Drawing on a broad range of thinkers and writers, from C.S. Lewis to Sylvia Plath, Hegel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Rapp learns what wisdom there is to be gained from parenting a terminally ill child.  In luminous, exquisitely moving prose she re-examines our most fundamental assumptions about what it means to be a good parent, to be a success, and to live a meaningful life.


Submission Sunday 3.31.12

Via Arts Journal 

The Appendix: A New Journal of Narrative and Experimental History Call for Submissions

The Appendix is a quarterly journal of experimental and narrative history; though at times outlandish, everything in its pages is as true as the sources allow. The Appendix solicits articles from historians, writers, and artists committed to good storytelling, with an eye for the strange and a suspicion of both jargon and traditional narratives. A creature of the web, its format takes advantage of the flexibility of hypertext and modern web presentation techniques to experiment with and explore the process and method of writing history.

The Appendix seeks compelling writing and art about neglected histories. We publish essays and articles based on archival research; reported non-fiction about memory and the past; book reviews; historical fiction, poetry and comics; image portfolios; and interviews with practitioners or subjects of history. The Appendix is particularly fascinated by sources – a forgotten photo, a dead-end manifesto, an unread letter – that shed light on forgotten worlds. We like to publish these sources whole. Tweet from March 28: The Appendix wants your fiction! Historical like David Mitchell: not corny. Sound-related ideal. Email editors@theappendix.net. 

Green Mountains Review
2013 Neil Shepard Prizes in Poetry and Fiction
(Deadline April 15 – $500)

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Friday Reads 3.29.13

Chris: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

"I'm moderating a panel for the LA Times Festival of Books on April 20, so I'll be reading the panelists' books over the next few weeks. Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins is first up, and I'm really enjoying the mix of stories and settings so far."

The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying. And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio's back lot—searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.

What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion—along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow. Gloriously inventive, constantly surprising, Beautiful Ruins is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams.

Sacha: The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem

"This collection of 'nonfictions, etc.' occasionally falls prey to the misconception that everything Lethem has ever written should be archived for posterity, but the title essay, an examination of artistic influence and plagiarism that is itself 'plagiarized,' is worth the price of admission alone."

What’s a novelist supposed to do with contemporary culture? And what’s contemporary culture sup­posed to do with novelists? In The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem, tangling with what he calls the “white elephant” role of the writer as public intellectual, arrives at an astonishing range of answers. 

A constellation of previously published pieces and new essays as provocative and idiosyncratic as any he’s written, this volume sheds light on an array of topics from sex in cinema to drugs, graffiti, Bob Dylan, cyberculture, 9/11, book touring, and Marlon Brando, as well as on a shelf’s worth of his literary models and contemporaries: Norman Mailer, Paula Fox, Bret Easton Ellis, James Wood, and oth­ers. And, writing about Brooklyn, his father, and his sojourn through two decades of writing, Lethem sheds an equally strong light on himself.

Jennifer: The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard

"These are autobiographical essays, but they read like short stories and accumulate with the power of a novel. Like Stephanie Vaughn's Sweet Talk, the book has the feel of treasure: every word is beautifully, perfectly evoked. This too will be a long-remembered favorite."

Rarely does the debut of a new writer garner such attention and acclaim. The excitement began the moment "The Fourth State of Matter," one of the fourteen extraordinary personal narratives in this book, appeared in the pages of the New Yorker. It increased when the author received a prestigious Whiting Foundation Award in November 1997, and it continued as the hardcover edition of The Boys of My Youth sold out its first printing even before publication. The author writes with perfect pitch as she takes us through one woman's life—from childhood to marriage and beyond—and memorably captures the collision of youthful longing and the hard intransigences of time and fate.


A Helpful Guide to Artist Residencies

Fine Arts Work Center (Provincetown, MA) 

Ian Fleming had Goldeneye, the Jamaica estate where he invented James Bond. Flannery O’Connor had Andalusia, the 500-acre Georgia farm where she wrote “A Good Man Is Hard to Find."

We’ve all thought it, as we struggle away in our walkups and bachelor studios and four-plexes: “If I had a place like that, I could finish a book, too.” True, most of us don’t have access to mansions. But it turns out, you can borrow one. 

Around the country there are institutions devoted to providing time and space for writers to do their work—more than 150 at last count. Beyond time alone in a room, you’ll meet challenging people doing work at a whole different level, and being out of your usual routine forces you to look at your own writing in new ways. Plus, it connects you with the artists and writers who’ve been there, people who you’re tied with before you ever meet. And it never hurts to have it on your resume.

Fine Arts Work Center

Anyone who can be gone long-term should look at this program in Provincetown, Mass.  It’s for beginning artists and writers, it lasts seven months, and you get paid to be there.  It’s crazy competitive, but what the hell?  They have to let someone in.

MacDowell Colony Library (Peterborough, NH) 

The rest range from a week to three months.  Here are just a few, starting with ones that don’t ask their guests for a penny:

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Submission Sunday 3.24.13

Narrative Magazine
Winter 2013 Story Contest
(Deadline March 31 – $2500)

OUR WINTER CONTEST is open to all fiction and nonfiction writers. We’re looking for short shorts, short stories, essays, memoirs, photo essays, graphic stories, all forms of literary nonfiction, and excerpts from longer works of both fiction and nonfiction. Entries must be previously unpublished, no longer than 15,000 words, and must not have been previously chosen as a winner, finalist, or honorable mention in another contest.

Prior winners and finalists in Narrative contests have gone on to receive other awards, and to be published in prize collections, including the Pushcart Prize, the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Atlantic prize, and others. View some recent awards won by our writers.

As always, we are looking for works with a strong narrative drive, with characters we can respond to as human beings, and with effects of language, situation, and insight that are intense and total. We look for works that have the ambition of enlarging our view of ourselves and the world.

Awards: First Prize is $2,500, Second Prize is $1,000, Third Prize is $500, and ten finalists will receive $100 each. All entries will be considered for publication.

Zócalo Public Square Poetry Prize (Deadline April 1 – $500)

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Friday Reads 3.22.13


Chris: NW by Zadie Smith

"I've loved everything I've read by Zadie Smith and, while not my favorite of her novels (see White Teeth orOn Beauty), this book is no exception."

This is the story of a city. The northwest corner of a city. Here you’ll find guests and hosts, those with power and those without it, people who live somewhere special and others who live nowhere at all.  And many people in between. Every city is like this. Cheek-by-jowl living. Separate worlds... And then there are the visitations: the rare times a stranger crosses a threshold without permission or warning, causing a disruption in the whole system. Like the April afternoon a woman came to Leah Hanwell’s door, seeking help, disturbing the peace, forcing Leah out of her isolation…

Zadie Smith’s brilliant tragi-comic new novel follows four Londoners - Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan – as they try to make adult lives outside of Caldwell, the council estate of their childhood. From private houses to public parks, at work and at play, their London is a complicated place, as beautiful as it is brutal, where the thoroughfares hide the back alleys and taking the high road can sometimes lead you to a dead end.

Megan: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman

"If you had doubts that a memoir about pursuing graduate studies in Russian literature could be simultaneously hilarious, erudite, and full of genuine and contagious passion for reading, read this book and become a believer."

No one who read Elif Batuman’s first article (in the journal n+1) will ever forget it. “Babel in California” told the true story of various human destinies intersecting at Stanford University during a conference about the enigmatic writer Isaac Babel... Batuman’s subsequent pieces—for The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and the London Review of Books—have made her one of the most sought-after and admired writers of her generation, and its best traveling companion. In The Possessed we watch her investigate a possible murder at Tolstoy’s ancestral estate. We go with her to Stanford, Switzerland, and St. Petersburg; retrace Pushkin’s wanderings in the Caucasus; learn why Old Uzbek has one hundred different words for crying; and see an eighteenth-century ice palace reconstructed on the Neva. 

Love and the novel, the individual in history, the existential plight of the graduate student: all find their place in The Possessed. Literally and metaphorically following the footsteps of her favorite authors, Batuman searches for the answers to the big questions in the details of lived experience, combining fresh readings of the great Russians, from Pushkin to Platonov, with the sad and funny stories of the lives they continue to influence—including her own.


Sacha: Petrograd, written by Philip Gelatt and illustrated by Tyler Crook

"This fat historical graphic novel tells the story of a British intelligence officer tasked with the assassination of Rasputin, adviser to the last Tsarina during the twilight of the Russian Empire.  The black, white, and red art sets a dark, stylish tone, and when things get bloody, they get really bloody.  It gets a little heavy-handed, but Petrograd nicely showcases the decay of the White Russian aristocracy and the rumblings of an energized proletariat at a significant turning point of the old, dead century."

 Introducing the untold tale of the international conspiracy behind the murder of Gregorii Rasputin! Set during the height of the first World War, the tale follows a reluctant British spy stationed in the heart of the Russian empire as he is handed the most difficult assignment of his career: orchestrate the death of the mad monk, the Tsarina's most trusted adviser and the surrogate ruler of the nation. The mission will take our hero from the slums of the working class into the opulent houses of the super rich... he'll have to negotiate dangerous ties with the secret police, navigate the halls of power, and come to terms with own revolutionary leanings, all while simply trying to survive! Based on historical documents and research, Petrograd is a tense, edge-of-your seat spy thriller, taking the reader on a journey through the background of one of history's most infamous assassinations, set against the backdrop of one of the most tumultuous moments in 20th century history.

Jennifer: The March by E. L. Doctorow

"I picked this up at the library in audio form primarily because it was available, good audio books being in short supply, and because the story of the South fascinates me, having grown up there. Also, it is read by a man, an easier sell for my toddler sitting in the backseat, who is lulled to silence by Paul Auster and tolerated Lolita but is undone by warbly females. The March is read by Joe Morton, who brings an impressive range of voices and accents, particularly the Southern, to life. Though I can't say how the book would read without the richness Morton gives it, I find Doctorow's characters well imagined and the novel, particularly for its historical import, completely engaging." 

In 1864, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman marched his sixty thousand troops through Georgia to the sea, and then up into the Carolinas. The army fought off Confederate forces, demolished cities, and accumulated a borne-along population of freed blacks and white refugees until all that remained was the dangerous transient life of the dispossessed and the triumphant. In E. L. Doctorow’s hands the great march becomes a floating world, a nomadic consciousness, and an unforgettable reading experience with awesome relevance to our own times.