Iowa Short Fiction Award

John Smith, Will Wordsworth

Published by: University of Iowa Press

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The Thin Tear in the Fabric of Space

The Thin Tear in the Fabric of Space gathers stories about coping with grief, trying to love people who have died, and--more broadly--leaving old versions of the self behind, sometimes by choice and sometimes out of necessity. In each of the nine stories, Douglas Trevor's characters are forced to face uncomfortable realities. For Elena Gavrushnekov in the title story, that means admitting after the death of her beloved that she still longs for contact with other human bodies. For Peter in “Central Square,” it is realizing that, like his deceased father before him, he is drinking himself to death. Unable to confront his incapacitated mother and the memory of the plane crash that killed his father, Edwin Morris in “Saint Francis in Flint” is compelled to acknowledge that his saintly aspirations are not what they appear to be, while Sharon Mackaney in “The Surprising Weight of the Body's Organs” struggles with uncontrollable outbursts of rage in the wake of her young son's death. In moments of great pain and loss, when self-expression seems impossible and terribly useless, the characters in these stories nonetheless discover the tenderness of others. In “The River,” the narrator finds that the friendship he has forged with a French girl with whom he can only just communicate has bred intense, almost intuitive compassion, while in “Fellowship of the Bereaved,” the disconsolate brother of the deceased sister who occupies the empty center of the story uncovers not only anger in his parents but also empathy and humor. As these characters persevere in their own lives, they do so mindful of, and humanized by, the experiences of having seen people they know and love slip unexpectedly into the thin tear in the fabric of space: that quiet chasm that so resolutely separates the living from the dead.

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Things Kept, Things Left Behind

The stories in Things Kept, Things Left Behind explore the ambiguities of kept secrets, the tangles of abandoned pasts, and uneasy accommodations. Jim Tomlinson’s characters each face the desire to reclaim dreams left behind, along with something of the dreamer that was also lost. Starkly rendered, these spiraling characters inhabit a specific place and class---small-town Kentucky, working-class America---but the stories, told in all their humor and tragedy, are universal.In each story the characters face conflict, sometimes within themselves, sometimes with each other. Each carries a past and with it an urge to return and repair. In “First Husband, First Wife,” ex-spouses are repeatedly drawn together by a shared history they cannot seem to escape, and they are finally forced to choose between leaving the past or leaving each other. LeAnn and Cass are grown sisters who conspire to help their prideful mother in “Things Kept.” “Prologue” is a voyeuristic journey through the surprisingly different lives of two star-crossed friends, each with its successes and pitfalls, told through their letters over thirty-five years. In “Stainless,” Annie and Warren divide their possessions on the final night of their marriage. Their realtor has advised them to “declutter” the house they are leaving, but they discover that most of the clutter cannot be so easily removed. The choices are never simple, and for every thing kept, something must be abandoned. Tomlinson’s characters struggle but eventually find their way, often unknowingly, to points of departure, to places where things just might change.

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This Day in History

On the verge of maturity--where parents are distant or absent, friendships are often more accidental than deliberate, and restless angst is common--Anthony Varallo's adolescent protagonists dissect the world, and their place in it, with keen perception. This Day in History deftly collects their moments of discovery. “There's a feeling I get whenever I enter an unfamiliar house, as if a secret inventory has been handed to me, and I am made to understand that the sofa cushions are stained underneath, the coffee table nursing one gimp leg, the books along the bookcase stolen from summer rental, and the dining room table used only for Christmas and taxes,” the narrator confesses in the first of Varallo's twelve stories. Here, a birthday party for an unpopular classmate reveals an adult world both familiar and utterly strange. In subsequent stories a young girl longs to be a part of her best friend's family, only to discover the family is less than ideal; two sisters recall the childhood houses they grew up--and apart--in, places inseparable from each woman's notion of the other; and a mother and son set off on a bold and hopeless errand, their suburban neighborhood momentarily transformed into a stage.As these children stand on the brink of adulthood, unsure how to move forward, striving to make sense of the world around them, they often discover that the distance between themselves and others is no nearly so great as first imagined. Funny, sad, and hopeful, Varallo's stories make a gentle argument for connection and community and, in doing so, seek to extend our sympathy toward the world.

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Wet Places at Noon

Abbott's community is pure Americana, a wild world inhabited by gloriously street-smart smartasses: overeducated, underemployed men mourning for the confident women who have left them—or have they?—but knowing that equally confident women are just around the corner—or are they? His urgent, maximalist style allows their exhilarating voices to be heard and remembered.

 

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What Counts as Love

Marian Crotty

In these nine stories, Marian Crotty inhabits the lives of people searching for human connection. Her characters, most often young women, are honest, troubled, and filled with longing. In the title story, a young woman begins a job on a construction site after leaving an abusive marriage. In “Crazy for You,” two girls spy on a neighbor’s sex life, while their own sexuality hovers in the distance. In “A Real Marriage,” a college student marries a boyfriend to help him stay in the United States. In “The Fourth Fattest Girl at Cutting Horse Ranch,” the daily life of a residential treatment center for eating disorders is disrupted by the arrival of a celebrity. The stories are set in Arizona, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the Persian Gulf, and often touch on themes of addiction, class, sexuality, and gender. What Counts as Love is a poignant, often funny collection that asks us to take it and its characters seriously. 

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When Mystical Creatures Attack!

Kathleen Founds

In When Mystical Creatures Attack!, Ms. Freedman’s high school English class writes essays in which mystical creatures resolve the greatest sociopolitical problems of our time. Students include Janice Gibbs, “a feral child with excessive eyeliner and an anti-authoritarian complex that would be interesting were it not so ill-informed,” and Cody Splunk, an aspiring writer working on a time machine. Following a nervous breakdown, Ms. Freedman corresponds with Janice and Cody from an insane asylum run on the capitalist model of cognitive-behavioral therapy, where inmates practice water aerobics to rebuild their Psychiatric Credit Scores.
 
The lives of Janice, Cody, and Ms. Freedman are revealed through in-class essays, letters, therapeutic journal exercises, an advice column, a reality show television transcript, a diary, and a Methodist women’s fundraising cookbook. (Recipes include “Dark Night of the Soul Food,” “Render Unto Caesar Salad,” and “Valley of the Shadow of Death by Chocolate Cake.”) In “Virtue of the Month,” the ghost of Ms. Freedman’s mother argues that suicide is not a choice. In “The Un-Game,” Janice’s chain-smoking nursing home charge composes a dirty limerick. In “The Hall of Old-Testament Miracles,” wax figures of Bible characters come to life, hungry for Cody’s flesh.
 
Set against a South Texas landscape where cicadas hum and the air smells of taco stands and jasmine flowers, these stories range from laugh-out-loud funny to achingly poignant. This surreal, exuberant collection mines the dark recesses of the soul while illuminating the human heart.

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Whose World Is This?

Montgomery's characters blow drugs and boys, advise friends who are dying of AIDS about pennies in penny loafers, write letters to Caroline Kennedy, and fall in love with movie stars. Some lose themselves to ambivalence while contemplating motherhood; others find themselves soothed when, after hearing of the sudden death of a dear friend they seduce a stranger.
       In the story "We Americans," a woman abandoned by her husband grows so vulnerable, she internalizes TV news tragedies by developing hives in the shapes of foreign countries. In the title story, Hannah, a speed freak working the graveyard shift in a nursing home, falls in love with a quadriplegic who void of feelings in his limbs, feel things she cannot. In "Avalanche", an editor to movie stars in Beverly Hills struggles with how to reconcile her own story with the fairy-tale endings of celebrity culture.
    Tender, poignant, and at times hilarious, the women in Whose World Is This? turn common notions of love, compassion, and tradition upside down as they show us how vulnerability, although dangerous, is what makes life astonishingly beautiful and reality strangely unreal.

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