Iowa Short Fiction Award

John Smith, Will Wordsworth

Published by: University of Iowa Press

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If I'd Known You Were Coming

Kate Milliken

In these twelve award-winning stories, Kate Milliken unflinchingly shows us what can happen when the uninvited guest of our darkest desires comes to call. Whether surrounded by the white noise of a Hollywood celebration or enduring a stark winter in Maine, the characters of If I’d Known You Were Coming yearn to heal old wounds with new hurts. With a wry wit and a keen eye for emotive detail, the author of this unforgettable collection sets intersections in motion that will leave you both winded and wanting more.
In one story, a mother, driven by greed, unwittingly finds out how far her needs will push her. A hand model surprises himself and everyone else at the birthday party of an old friend’s daughter in another. With poetic deftness, a woman evaluates the meaning, the familial stories, that we carry with us from birth. In a story ripped from the headlines, a woman pines for the legs her husband lost in a freak accident at a Santa Monica farmer's market. A medical clerk, restless and alone, takes advantage of a disabled neighbor.

Kate Milliken knows the ties that bind and how tautly we will pull them. These are stories about desire, betrayal, love, regret, and family. Like all great fiction, If I’d Known You Were Coming possesses that uncanny ability to reveal us to ourselves.

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Invite

Intense inner and outer monologues resonate through the lives of Glen Pourciau’s characters. We hear the voice of a man who will not stop talking, the voice of a man who does not want to talk, the voice of a man stunned into silence by his sudden awareness of a desire he did not know he felt, and the voice of a man struggling to accept his imminent death.

Inhabiting an outwardly bland landscape that overlays internal questions and recurring confusion, the narrators of these ten intensely felt stories strive to understand their varied predicaments. Conflicts with neighbors arise, troubling memories return, suspicions and fears lead people into isolated corners as distances open up inside them and around them. And in those open spaces, the sometimes humorous, sometimes obsessive voices continue their quest. In the final story, “Deep Wilderness,” the voices seem to fragment as a family comes apart.

While his characters struggle to come to terms with their inner wilderness, Glen Pourciau’s spare, riveting voice maintains a constant presence. Invite is a debut collection that speaks volumes.  

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The Kind of Things Saints Do

From the Anglo-American woman who makes a spectacle of herself trying to be Cuban in Miami to the estranged son leading his father on a hostile hike in New Mexico, Valeri's characters carry a heavy load of desire and anger. Proud, loud, and hungry for whatever comes next, each person desperately searches for an understanding that lessens his or her burden. The saints here are pure only in their anger, desperation, and desire to be loved, holy only in their quest to keep going.

These stories grow through subtle shifts—the bad becomes not so bad, the worst livable. It is the saintly moments of unexpected understanding that shape the collection: one gigolo's lover picks up another at a bus stop and they agree on his worthlessness, the love-worn man reminds the newly divorced woman of her physical power, the estranged son shelters his father from an unexpected storm.

Valeri navigates the reader through the bones and scars of those who ache with wanting something else and become a little older and a little wiser for it. The Kind of Things Saints Do is a collection of human imperfections and missed connections that grows into a kaleidoscope of aspiration and hope.

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Lester Higata's 20th Century

Barbara Hamby

“Lester Higata knew his life was about to end when he walked out on the lanai behind his house in Makiki and saw his long-dead father sitting in a lawn chair near the little greenhouse where Lester kept his orchids.” Thus begins Barbara Hamby’s magical narrative of the life of a Japanese American man in Honolulu. The quietly beautiful linked stories in Lester Higata’s 20th Century bring us close to people who could be, and should be, our friends and neighbors and families.

 Starting in 1999 with his conversation with his father, continuing backward in time throughout his life with his wife, Katherine, and their children in Hawai‘i, and ending with his days in the hospital in 1946, as he heals from a wartime wound and meets the woman he will marry, Hamby recreates not just one but any number of the worlds that have shaped Lester. The world of his mother, as stubbornly faithful to Japan and Buddhism as Katherine’s mother is to Ohio and conservative Christianity; the world of his children, whose childhoods and adulthoods are vastly different from his own; the world after Pearl Harbor and Vietnam; the world of a professional engineer and family man: the worlds of Lester Higata’s 20th Century are filled with ordinary people living extraordinary lives, moving from farms to classrooms and offices, from racism to acceptance and even love, all in a setting so paradisal it should be heaven on earth.

 Never forgetting the terrors of wartime—“We wake one morning with the wind racing toward us like an animal, and nothing is ever the same”—but focusing on the serene joys of peacetime, Lester populates his worlds with work, faith, and family among the palm trees and blue skies of the island he loves.

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The Long White

In the sparsely settled hills of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, winter's toughness is matched only by the animosity and affection of its inhabitants for each other and for the land that unnerves them. In The Long White, Sharon Dilworth evokes a place dominated by two great lakes whose power and ferocity influence the lives of every inhabitant. The particularities of place and character come together with the clarity and exactitude of a fresh snowfall that both veils and illuminates a landscape.

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The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons

Heather A. Slomski

Winner of the 2014 Iowa Short Fiction Award, Heather A. Slomski’s debut story collection takes loss as its primary subject and holds it up to the light. In prose spare and daring, poised yet startling, these stories take shape in reality, but reality, they sometimes show us, is not a separate realm from the fantastic or the surreal. Two couples meet for dinner to acknowledge an affair. A mannequin recalls a lover and the life she mysteriously lost.  Two girls observe a young widow’s grief through a café window. A man’s hat is as discerning as Cinderella’s shoe.

In the fifteen stories that comprise this collection—some short as breaths, two of them novelettes—Slomski writes with a keen eye about relationships. About the desires that pull us together and the betrayals that push us apart. About jealousy, obsession, loneliness and regret—the byproducts of loving someone that keep us awake at night. 

The characters in these stories share meals, drink wine, buy furniture and art. They live domestic lives, so often wanting to love someone yet ending up alone. In one story, a woman’s fiancé leaves her when she goes to post some mail. In another story, a man can’t move past an affair his wife almost had. Another story describes a series of drawings to detail a couple’s end. But while loss and heartache pervade these stories, there is also occasional hope. For, as the title story shows us, sometimes a breakup isn’t an end at all, but the beginning of your life.  

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Lungs Full of Noise

Tessa Mellas

This prize-winning debut of twelve stories explores a femininity that is magical, raw, and grotesque. Aghast at the failings of their bodies, this cast of misfit women and girls sets out to remedy the misdirection of their lives in bold and reckless ways. 

Figure skaters screw skate blades into the bones of their feet to master elusive jumps. A divorcee steals the severed arm of her ex to reclaim the fragments of a dissolved marriage. Following the advice of a fashion magazine, teenaged girls binge on grapes to dye their skin purple and attract prom dates. And a college freshman wages war on her roommate from Jupiter, who has inadvertently seduced all the boys in their dorm with her exotic hermaphroditic anatomy.

But it isn’t just the characters who are in crisis. In Lungs Full of Noise, personal disasters mirror the dissolution of the natural world. Written in lyrical prose with imagination and humor, Tessa Mellas’s collection is an aviary of feathered stories that are rich, emotive, and imbued with the strength to suspend strange new worlds on delicate wings.

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My Body to You

In the thirteen stories of My Body to You, thirteen women or girls pilot their own bodies through a shifting universe of lovers old and young, parents devoted and destructive, sisters of different sexes, children and adults living in the mysterious world of autism. All these characters share keen powers of observations and a heightened sensuality. In a wild variety of settings, they struggle to control—or dare to abandon themselves to—their intensely private passions.

A woman in love with a gay man she calls Sister Kin attempts to escape the bonds of her own body. An eighteen-year-old virgin enters into a passionate affair with an older man who turns out to be a virgin of a different sort. A special education teacher in a school for aggressive teenagers finds herself attracted to another teacher, also female. An intelligent outcast girl bonds with her mindlessly seductive mother to form “one person.”

Searle reveals other characters through inventive and often comic feats of narrative daring. A girl grows into womanhood during a single family dinner that spans twenty years. A middle-aged wife, once dubbed “The First Most Beautiful Woman in the World,” watches her former selves parade before her family in a lively evening of home movies. Two women—one recently divorced, the other a group home resident in love with The Who—join forces as they figure out “What to Do in an Emergency.” An old woman experiences both physical breakdown and spiritual breakdown in a supermarket's vegetable department. A young woman is drawn into the emotional and sexual life of an autistic boy obsessed with the number 8.

Each of these stories is written in a language that strives to match the intensity of Searle's characters; each gives the reader an exceptionally intimate portrait of a unique female and the central, sensual mystery of her body.

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Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories

Edward Hamlin

Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories spans the globe, taking us from Belfast to Brazil, Morocco to Manhattan. The teenaged daughter of an IRA assassin flees Northern Ireland only to end up in Baby Doc’s terrifying Haiti. An American woman who’s betrayed her brother only to lose him to a Taliban bullet comes face to face with her demons during a vacation in Morocco. A famed photojournalist must find a way to bring her life’s work to closure before she goes blind, a quest that changes her understanding of the very physics of light.

By turns innocent and canny, the characters of Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories must learn to improvise—quickly—when confronted with stark choices they never dreamed they’d have to make. Lyrical, immaculately constructed and deeply felt, these nine stories take us far beyond our comfort zones and deep into the wilds of the human heart.

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November Storm

Robert Oldshue

In each of the stories in Robert Oldshue’s debut collection, the characters want to be decent but find that hard to define.

In the first story, an elderly couple is told that delivery of their Thanksgiving dinner has been canceled due to an impending blizzard. Unwilling to have guests but nothing to serve them, they make a run to the grocery, hoping to get there and back before the snow, but crash their car into the last of their neighbors. In “The Receiving Line,” a male prostitute tricks a closeted suburban schoolteacher only to learn that the trick is on him. In “The Woman On The Road,” a twelve-year-old girl negotiates the competing demands of her faith and her family as she is bat mitzvahed in the feminist ferment of the 1980s. The lessons she learns are the lessons learned by a ten-year-old boy in “Fergus B. Fergus,” after which, in “Summer Friend,” two women and one man renegotiate their sixty-year intimacy when sadly, but inevitably, one of them gets ill. “The Home Of The Holy Assumption” offers a benediction. A quadriplegic goes missing at a nursing home. Was she assumed? In the process of finding out, all are reminded that caring for others, however imperfectly—even laughably—is the only shot at assumption we have.

In upstate New York, a November storm is one that comes early in the season. If it catches people off-guard, it can change them in the ways Oldshue’s characters are changed by different but equally surprising storms.
 

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